Officials from the largest federal workers union on Friday hailed news of an upcoming investigation into problems of racism within the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying that attention on the problem is overdue.
“For far too long, VA leadership has turned a blind eye to employee claims of racism, disparaged their credibility in the media, and refused to meet with the union to discuss this serious issue,” said Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the Government Accountability Office had agreed to investigate charges of racism within the department stemming from an AFGE membership survey during the summer.
About 78 percent of employees surveyed by the union labeled racism a “moderate to serious problem” within the department. The findings prompted Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, to request a full investigation into the allegations.
In a statement to the Post, Warren called the GAO investigation (expected to begin sometime in early 2021) “a good first step towards confronting and addressing the staggering accounts of racism and discrimination reported by VA employees and veterans.”
VA officials called it a sham.
“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,” department spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement.
“VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form.”
Noel also accused AFGE of its own problems with racism and sexual harassment, adding “perhaps the senators should also look into (those) troubling allegations.”
AFGE has about 270,000 VA employees among its members. The union has fought bitterly with the past several administrations and VA officials over a host of workplace issues.
The GAO announcement comes as President Donald Trump has moved to eliminate racial sensitivity training in the federal workplace, calling it “sick” and anti-American.
Kelley said the problems of racist behavior at VA have “been exacerbated under the Trump administration and will only get worse with actions like President Trump’s executive order banning diversity training at federal agencies.”
According to VA, more than 40 percent of VA employees were minorities as of fiscal 2018, the most recent data available.
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.