The Department of Veterans Affairs will be investigated by a watchdog agency following allegations from VA staff that racism and discrimination are widespread at the department.
In August, one of the largest unions representing federal employees, including hundreds of thousands of VA workers, released the results of a nationwide survey that showed 78% of VA staff reported that racism is a "moderate" to "serious" problem at the department.
More than half -- 55% -- said they witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while at work.
The survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees included responses from about 1,500 VA workers and showed that 76% of employees who responded said they "experienced racially charged actions" while working at the department. AFGE says it represents about 270,000 of VA's more than 400,000 employees.
Following the release of those survey results, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, on Thursday asked that the Government Accountability Office investigate the "culture, policies and practices" of VA to "determine the extent to which systemic racism" affects workers and veterans.
GAO accepted the request to investigate the department and said it will likely begin in about six months, GAO Congressional Relationtions Managing Director Orice Williams Brown wrote in a letter to the senators.
"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," Press Secretary Christina Noel said in a statement Thursday. "The senators’ request to GAO is nothing more than a shameful attempt to besmirch the reputations of hundreds of thousands of dedicated career government employees at VA."
Noel argued that the senators filed the request "on behalf of AFGE, a group that is now being sued for allegations of tolerating an environment of rampant racism and sexual harassment ... Perhaps the senators should also look into the troubling allegations of AFGE's work environment rather than the department, which has seen unprecedented improvement since the scandal-ridden days of the Obama administration."
More than 40% of VA employees were minorities, as of fiscal year 2018, Noel added. Many of those staffers are also veterans.
The investigation is expected to include a review of whether VA staff and veterans in hospitals and clinics, benefits offices and other facilities experience racism at the department.
"The GAO agreeing to conduct an independent audit is a good first step towards confronting and addressing the staggering accounts of racism and discrimination reported by VA employees and veterans," Warren said in a statement. "The VA is the second biggest agency in our entire federal government and it's crucial that we root out systemic racism at the agency and all institutions."
Schatz said the investigation is a "good first step to rooting out systemic racism" and ensuring that veterans are treated "with the dignity and respect they deserve."
Current and former VA workers told reporters in August after the survey results were released of their experiences of racism at the department, including racial slurs from higher-level staff, disparaging comments, being passed over for promotions and more.
At an event recognizing Juneteenth at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, Black employees were allegedly told to act as a "living display" of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Floyd, according to internal emails and VA staff, first reported by The Washington Post.
“I describe it as a mold – in the dark, secret. It’s quiet, but it’s affecting people of color throughout the VA,” Marcellus Shields, former VA employee in Wilmington, Delaware and president of his local AFGE chapter told reporters at the time. “This is unacceptable. This is something that needs to be pulled out from the root.”
VA has a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and a Center for Minority Veterans, but the last quarterly report released by the center used 2014 data. VA also was not releasing its diversity and inclusion reports publicly until after a Freedom of Information Act Request from Connecting Vets this summer. Following that request, VA began publishing those reports on its website. The most recent is from 2018.
Over Labor Day weekend, VA union workers held socially distanced nationwide protests "demanding COVID-19 protections and racial justice," and protesting a lack of pandemic hazard pay, "continuing shortages of personal protective equipment," systemic racism at the department and more, union officials said.
Noel said that any VA employee who encounters discrimination or harassment is asked to call their Equal Employment Opportunity Manager, Employee Threat Assessment Team or VA's Office of resolution management at 1-888-566-3982.