Following a new report highlighting that more than one-quarter of women working as Veterans Affairs employees experienced sexual harassment, congressional leaders on Wednesday demanded immediate changes in department policies to ensure that such claims are investigated and addressed instead of being overlooked.
“The department must make the prevention and addressing of sexual harassment a top priority,” a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers stated in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “As an institution that is charged with providing healthcare and benefits to survivors of sexual violence, VA must lead on all fronts … on addressing this issue.”
The letter — signed by the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, as well as Iraq War veteran Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa — came just a few hours after a new Government Accountability Office report lamenting shortfalls in VA training, reporting and oversight of sexual harassment events.
“Absent additional action, some VA employees may continue to distrust VA’s handling of sexual harassment allegations,” the report stated. “Further, VA’s core values, which include integrity, advocacy, and respect, along with its ability to deliver the highest quality services to the nation’s veterans, may be compromised.”
According to federal survey data from 2014 to 2016 — the latest year the survey was conducted — 26 percent of women who worked at VA reported some form of sexual harassment, and 14 percent of male employees said they were subject to similar unwelcome workplace behavior.
Government-wide, the number of women reporting workplace sexual harassment was 21 percent. Among men, it was 9 percent.
In response to the report, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that much of the report is based on years-old information and “since then, VA has championed several efforts aimed at preventing harassment in all forms while improving employee experiences, retention and morale.”
VA officials told GAO that many of their recommendations have already been fully or completely implemented in recent years, and that they are focused on finding ways to end problems of harassment among employees.
But lawmakers pointed to several overdue changes that need to be made to strengthen department policies.
For example, VA does not currently require reporting of all sexual harassment complaints, which critics say could lead to under-reporting of cases and inefficient response to the problem.
The GAO also noted a potential problems with how the VA’s Equal Employment Opportunity office is structured, saying it should not oversee both harassment complaints and other personnel functions. VA officials have rejected calls for that change.
And lawmakers for months have complained about “incomplete and outdated policies” regarding sexual harassment training and awareness programs, saying they have lead to cultural problems within the agency.
VA leaders said they expect to have a new reporting and training system in place to deal with those concerns by fall 2021.
But that’s not fast enough for the congressional critics. They asked for a briefing on potential changes within 60 days to ensure the issue is being taken seriously, and to detail which of the numerous GAO recommendations are still not completed.
VA leaders have sparred with House Veterans’ Affairs leaders in recent months over the issue of sexual assault and harassment policies, after a committee staffer alleged she was assaulted at a Washington, D.C., VA medical center last fall.
Inspector General investigators could not prove or disprove that claim, but opened a second inquiry into whether top VA officials worked to discredit her amid an investigation into those allegations.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.