By Pamela Au /

Vast Majority of VA Employees Have Either Witnessed Or Experienced Racism at Work, Survey Finds

Nearly 76% of respondents to union survey have experienced "racially charged actions," and three-quarters of those who haven't experienced incidents themselves say they have witnessed them.

The nation’s largest federal employee union on Friday called on the Veterans Affairs Department to address systemic racism within its ranks, following the release of a survey that suggests most employees had either experienced or witnessed instances of racism at work.

The American Federation of Government Employees conducted a survey of bargaining unit employees in the wake of nationwide protests over racial justice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Of the more than 1,400 respondents to the union's survey, 55.4% said racism was a “serious problem” at the VA, while another 22.6% described racism as a moderate problem.

Additionally, 75.9% of respondents said they had personally experienced “racially charged actions” while at work, including derogatory language, discrimination and stereotyping. Of those employees, 63.6% reported the action was taken by a manager. And 74.5% of those who had not experienced racism reported that they had witnessed racially charged actions taken against others.

Nearly 55% of respondents also reported that they had witnessed racism against veterans while working at the VA.

AFGE did not immediately respond to questions regarding how the survey was conducted or its margin of error.

During a call with reporters Friday, AFGE members discussed their personal experience with racism while working at the VA. Multiple members said they were on the receiving end of racial slurs from coworkers on the job.

“You get called [the N-word], you get called a slave, and you get harassed to the point where you’re seeking therapy for psychological damages,” said Marcellus Shields, president of AFGE Local 342 in Wilmington, Del. “I’ve seen chairs thrown at people by a supervisor, and when we go to management, we can’t get any results.”

Charmayne Brown, who retired from a VA facility in Kansas City after repeated racial harassment from colleagues and supervisors, said a coworker called her a “tar baby,” and eventually was put in a position to rewrite her position description to handle unwanted work. She is part of a class action lawsuit against the facility and said the department has begun retaliating against her daughter, who is also a VA employee, over her involvement.

“I learned from one of the other ladies in the lawsuit that management, the director pulled her into a meeting and planted her in my daughter’s department to find any documentation she could that would lead to my daughter’s termination,” Brown said. “They don’t understand that that didn’t make me scared, it just made me mad as hell.”

Geddes Scott, president of AFGE Local 1988, which represents employees at a VA facility in Queens, N.Y., said that he has frequently seen racism spill over and affect how veterans are treated. He said that over time, employees grow “numb” to the constant discrimination.

“You begin to see how our vets who are Black men have a verbal or physical outburst, and the agency is quick to be punitive with their actions, transferring them to the medial unit or giving them a high dose of psychotic medicine,” Scott said. “But when a white man does something similar or more egregious, it’s excused and staff is told it’s their fault and that we need more training. Then you see the life go out of a lot of the staff’s eyes . . . There’s always an excuse to justify it.”

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel rejected the findings of the AFGE survey, instead accusing the union of a “desperate attempt” to draw attention away from a lawsuit filed against the AFGE national leadership over former National President J. David Cox’s alleged sexual misconduct.

“VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form,” Noel said. “[Any] VA employee encountering discrimination or harassment is encouraged to contact their Equal Employment Opportunity manager, Employee Threat Assessment Team, or VA’s Office of Resolution Management at 1-888-566-3982. Their concerns will be looked into right away. If AFGE’s stance against discrimination and harassment was as strong as VA’s, perhaps union leaders wouldn’t be subject to a lawsuit accusing them of ‘fostering a culture that turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment.’”

National Veterans Affairs Council supervisory attorney Ibidun Roberts said Noel’s comments were telling.

“You reached out for comment about the racist activity at VA, and their response to you is to deflect,” she said. “That tells us everything we need to know. These managers behave this way because they look up to the head of the VA.”