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White VA Employees Twice as Likely to Be Promoted as Black Workers

The American Federation of Government Employees said Thursday that new data it obtained via the Freedom of Information Act underscores its allegations of systemic racism pervading the Veterans Affairs Department.

As a federal watchdog agency prepares to investigate accusations of systemic racism at the Veterans Affairs Department, newly released data suggests that it’s easier to get promoted within the department if you’re white.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA workers, released data on promotion rates that it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request on Thursday. The data showed that over the last two fiscal years, white employees were nearly twice as likely to be selected for a promotion as their Black counterparts.

In fiscal 2019, 58,803 white employees applied for management positions, and 2,745 of them were chosen for jobs, a selection rate of 4.7%. By contrast, while 40,578 Black employees applied for management jobs, only 1,012 of them were selected. This translates to a selection rate of 2.5% for Black employees.

Between Oct. 1, 2019, and July 13, 2020, the gap between the number of white and Black applicants for management jobs narrowed, with 17,257 Black employees applying, compared to 22,650 white applicants. But the department selected 989 white employees for the jobs, more than double the 436 Black employees who were promoted. The selection rate for Black applicants was 2.5%, compared with 4.4% for white employees.

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel described the data as “incomplete and not definitive,” since applicants were able to decline to provide demographic information. Although Noel declined to elaborate on the issue, AFGE-provided data showed that in fiscal 2019, 46,562 applicants “omitted” demographic information, of whom 2,059 were selected for management posts, and in the partial fiscal 2020 dataset, 21,883 applicants “omitted” the information. The VA appointed 822 of those applicants to management jobs.

“The roughly 2 [percentage point] selection rate differences AFGE cites are due to the fact that these positions had 50% more white applicants,” Noel said. “VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form.”

Noel did not respond to questions about whether measuring promotions as a percentage of total applicants of an ethnicity effectively accounts for a difference in the total number of applications. She also did not respond to a request to clarify why the disparity between Black and white promotions persisted in fiscal 2020, when the difference in total applications was much slimmer, at 31%.

AFGE National President Everett Kelley said the new data suggests a bias against Black employees that pervades across the department.

“These troubling statistics point to an underlying bias at the VA against Black workers and validate the complaints our members have shared regarding the systemic racism they face every day while simply trying to serve our nation’s veterans and war heroes,” Kelley said.

In recent months, union members have increasingly sounded the alarm about racism and discrimination within the Veterans Affairs Department. An AFGE survey of employees in August found that nearly 76% of respondents had either experienced or witnessed “racially charged actions” while on the job, and nearly 55% said they had witnessed racism against veterans the department is supposed to serve.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office announced that it would conduct an audit of the VA to investigate systemic racism at the department, agreeing to fulfill a request made by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

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