Just under one-quarter of VA employees have experienced sexual harassment while on the job between 2014 and 2016. One-third of all VA employees saw evidence of sexual harassment. On average, 14 percent of federal employees in other agencies reported sexual harassment during that time period.
A recent audit by the General Accounting Office (GAO) determined the Trump administration has done little to help VA employees dealing with sexual harassment. About 26 percent of the VA’s female employees experienced sexual harassment, and 14 percent of male workers.
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on July 22, VA representatives said they were trying to change the culture so that women would feel more welcome at the VA. However, implementing any cultural changes will have to wait until 2024, as per the GAO audit.
Legislators did not want to hear about a four-year wait for meaningful change. Instead, they discussed passing legislation to bring about change very soon. Rep. Chris Pappas, (D-N.H.), the head of the House Veterans Affairs oversight panel, said the VA is “simply moving too slowly.”
Inconsistent, Outdated Policies
The GAO audit describes VA policies on sexual harassment as “inconsistent” and “outdated.” Some of the VA website links for reporting sexual harassment do not work, or important information is not included. Some of the VA staff were unaware of current sexual harassment policies, according to the audit.
The audit notes that the VA’s leadership structure creates conflicts of interest in reviewing harassment complaints and gaps in reporting complaints to VA headquarters in Washington.
Conflict of Interest
The audit criticizes what it terms a conflict of interest in the VA’s allowing the “assistant secretary for human resources, administration/operations, security and preparedness” to also serve as the VA’s equal employment opportunity director, as well as the person overseeing general personnel policies.
According to the audit, the conflict of interest among top VA personnel is especially prevalent in harassment complaint reviews. Complaints can take too long to reach the department’s Washington headquarters. In fact, it can take 1,100 days, or approximately three years, for such complaints to arrive at VA headquarters.
The Problem is Worsening
The audit concerns sexual harassment at the VA going back four to six years. Since then, the number of complaints has increased. Keep in mind that the number of sexual harassment complaints in an agency is almost always understated because many victims do not report the behavior.
In 2016, the VA reported 158 sexual harassment cases formally filed. The following year, the number had grown to 168, and by 2018 the number was 225. Filings dipped somewhat in 2019, at 180.
Patient Sexual Harassment
While the audit focused on VA employees and sexual harassment, veterans groups and lawmakers recognize that sexual harassment of VA patients is another critical issue. The “cultural changes” that need to happen result from the VA’s current culture of not seriously pursuing many sexual harassment allegations, whether reported by employees or veterans.
Stop the harassment. Get an experienced sexual harassment lawyer on your side. Call us to learn about your options: 877.858.8018 or EMAIL US.