A top official at the Environmental Protection Agency sent a staff-wide email on Monday assuring employees that individuals responsible for a recent spat of racist messages at agency facilities would be held accountable for their actions.
EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson sent the message after an unknown person wrote several racist messages on the whiteboard in the agency’s Office of Public Affairs located at the Washington, D.C., headquarters. The writings make derogatory references to “the negro man” and include the n-word, according to photos viewed by Government Executive. The messages followed an incident earlier this year in which someone left a printout of two apes on the desk of an African-American employee in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in a Virginia suburb just outside Washington, which addressed the staffer using the n-word and included the message “back to the jungle u go!”
Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union in an email brought the incidents to the attention of acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Principal Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian last week. The union officials alleged that similar messages were posted in OPA in September and October, but management kept it under wraps and never informed employees what steps it was taking to address the situation. That ultimately discouraged two other individuals who received racist messages from disclosing them out of fear of reprisal, the unions said.
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“Affected employees were hurt and fearful with what they read and heard about,” wrote Nate James, president of the AFGE council that represents many EPA headquarters employees, in his email. “This is NOT an isolated incident, and the manner in which various agency management officials responded to this and prior incidents gives the perception that our agency does not care about the health, safety, or wellbeing of its African-American employees.”
James also requested managers receive training on how to address similar incidents.
By Monday morning, Jackson sent an email addressing both the whiteboard writings and the message left on the Virginia employee’s desk.
“EPA has no tolerance for racism and will investigate and hold the individuals who are spreading these messages responsible,” Jackson said. “Concerning the most recent instance, EPA is taking every measure to both find who did this and protect our employees.”
Jackson said management has referred the matter to the inspector general for further investigation. A spokesman in the IG’s office said the matter is currently "under review by our leadership team." Jackson also solicited employees' help to track down those responsible and hold them accountable, saying anyone with information should report it to their supervisor.
“We take these events very seriously and will continue to take the necessary steps to stop and prevent this conduct,” Jackson said, adding, EPA employees “need to solve problems like these together because it affects all of us and is a problem no one at EPA should experience.”
Jackson called on the employees to ensure a “safe environment” for the workforce and thanked them for their commitment to making sure the “EPA workplace is free from offensive messages and prohibited harassment.”