White Veterans Affairs employees twice as likely to be promoted as Black staff, union says

Department of Veterans Affairs
Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs
By Connecting Vets
This story originally published Oct. 16, 2020 at 3:20 p.m. EST. It was updated Oct. 17 at 1:14 p.m. to reflect additional comments from VA.

White employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs were twice as likely to be chosen for promotions to management positions they applied for as Black employees, VA data shows.

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing 265,000 of VA's nearly 400,000 workers, released data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests showing promotion statistics from 2017 through mid-2020. 

In fiscal year 2019, for example, 6,711 employees were selected for management positions out of 176,352 who applied. About 23% of applicants were Black and 33% were white. But of the 40,578 Black employees who applied, about 2.5% were selected for promotion compared to 4.7% of the 58,803 white workers who applied. 

About 12% of white VA employees are in leadership positions. Fewer than 4% of Black VA staff are in positions of leadership. 

So far in 2020, the numbers have been similar, with a selection rate of about 2.5% for Black staff and 4.4% for white staff. In 2018, about 2.4% of Black applicants were selected compared to 4.4% of white employees who applied. In 2017, the numbers were closer but overall much lower, with 1.8% of Black workers selected for promotion compared to about 2.7% of white employees.

But VA took issue with how the union framed that data. Press Secretary Christina Noel said that "many applicants" chose not to submit demographic information, "making the data incomplete and not definitive." 

From fiscal year 2017 to 2020, Noel said about 19% to 29% of all applicants chose not to share demographic information with their applications. 

Noel also argued that the differences between selection rates are "due to the fact that these positions had 50% more white applicants." 

While that may account for the raw total number of employees selected for promotions, it doesn't fully explain the disparity in the percentage of each group of applicants selected.

“These troubling statistics point to an underlying bias at the VA against Black workers and validate the complaints our members have shared regarding the systemic racism they face every day while simply trying to serve our nation’s veterans and war heroes,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement Thursday. 

More than 40% of VA employees were minorities as of fiscal year 2018, Noel said previously. Many of VA's workers are also veterans. 

"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," Noel said. "As a result of VA’s commitment to fair and equal treatment of all employees, the department has boosted its rating from 17th to 6th among large federal agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s annual 'best places to work' survey of federal employees." 

VA also fired back at AFGE leadership specifically, arguing that the union lacked credibility in its attacks on the department because Kelley, its national president, faces litigation for allegedly "fostering a culture that turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment" and, Noel said, "racial slurs by the former AFGE national president." 

AFGE leaders said the promotion data is only the latest in a series of issues with alleged discrimination at VA.

The department has faced increasing allegations of racism and now is under investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) at the request of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii following an AFGE survey that showed nearly 80% of VA union staff who responded believe racism is a problem at the department, 76% have faced racism at work themselves and 55% have witnessed racial discrimination against veterans. 

Former VA staff have spoken with journalists about their experiences with racism at the department, including the use of racial slurs, systemic issues with promotions, pay and career advancement for employees of color, physical attacks, sexual harassment and assault and more. 

Days after the GAO announced it would investigate VA, emails went out canceling antiracism events planned at the department, apparently to adhere to President Donald Trump's recent executive order effectively banning antiracism training and education among federal employees. 

The promotion data follows the union's survey release, protests and more organized efforts pushing back against what AFGE characterizes as unfair, discriminatory treatment of employees by VA leaders and the administration as they face off over contract negotiations. 

Last week, former VA employees and civil rights leaders criticized VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and the president, laying the blame for the alleged "widespread" racism at their feet. 

"I see a rise in systemic racism, I see retaliation, I see a number of good VA employees too afraid to speak up to what is going on with them," said Marcellus Shields, a former VA employee in Wilmington, Delaware and president of the local AFGE union chapter. "It is rising every day. It affects the care of veterans. We won't go silently into this dark night. We will not take this lying down." 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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