Roughly one in four employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in recent years, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.
About 22% of VA employees said they experienced sexual harassment at work during a two-year period, according to a 2016 survey from the Merit Systems Protection Board. By comparison, 14% of federal employees across government said they experienced harassment during the same two-year period.
The numbers are likely higher, GAO said, because VA doesn’t have a centralized system to collect and track harassment complaints. Individual managers aren’t required to report instances of sexual harassment to a central VA office.
VA leaders who oversee sexual harassment complaints are also in charge of hiring and promotions, creating a potential conflict of interest at the department, GAO said.
And while VA has a broad policy and procedures for reporting sexual harassment, other components within the department have also distributed their own guidelines, which, in some cases, are outdated, missing information or confusing.
The report received a quick response from a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers, which wrote to Secretary Robert Wilkie urging him to quick action to address VA’s deficient policies and procedures.
VA agreed with nearly all of GAO’s recommendations. But the department said it may take years — and as long as 2024 in some case — to implement them.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee were united in their frustration with VA’s timeline.
“There is rocket time. There is standard time. There is turtle time, and then there’s bureaucracy time,” Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said. “The problem with bureaucracy time is no one can understand why it is that the federal government always has to take too long to implement so many things that are vitally important. This is vitally important.”
The results are especially frustrating, members said, considering GAO pointed to similar problems at VA back in 1993.
“I’m sorry, I read you a statement from a 1993 GAO report. It took you until 1993 to come up with training materials?” Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said “I’m growing impatient with this.”
It won’t take four years for VA to implement all recommendations, Powers said. New sexual harassment training will be available for employees by the end of next year, she said.
VA hired a chief learning officer to review and focus existing training options. The department’s talent management system has 285 courses on addressing workplace violence and 130 different courses on disruptive behavior.
“It’s not a problem of not having training. We have training. We have too much training. We don’t have consistent training,” Pamela Powers, VA’s acting deputy secretary, said. “We have an overarching training policy, but then every administration has developed their own. Some of it is outdated. Some of it is not needed. Unless I’m missing something, that’s really the problem. We need to make sure that this is focused.”
Budget cuts to the general administration fund, VA said, haven’t helped in the department’s effort to properly manage and oversee who receives what kind of training.
“The deputy has charged us with ensuring that we get [our] arms around what is the right training, for the right people at the right time,” Dan Sitterly, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, security and preparedness, said. “One hour of mandatory training across 400,000 employees is 400,000 hours that they don’t get to contact our veterans.”
Beyond updating its training, policies and other information, GAO suggested VA arrange its leadership and reporting structure so that EEO program managers aren’t handling sexual harassment complaints and hiring and promotions.
Specifically, GAO recommended VA realign the responsibilities of its equal employment opportunity director, so the same person isn’t handling sexual harassment complaints and personnel decisions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a similar recommendation to VA back in 2017. The department disagrees with the suggestion.
VA is, however, moving forward with another GAO recommendation. It suggested individual EEO program managers at individual Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration facilities should report to the department’s central Office of Resolution Management.
Though VA has realigned some of its EEO program managers as GAO suggested, Powers said budget constraints have hindered the department from making these moves more quickly.
The department won’t complete EEO realignments until 2024.
“We have to realign 134 EEO program managers. That comes with a resource requirement. That comes out of our general budget, which historically, unfortunately, keeps getting cut,” Powers said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that general budget isn’t overhead for headquarters. It’s [for] specific enterprise programs such as EEO that we really need that funding for.”
Still, committee members said VA can move more quickly.
“I still think we can do better than 2024,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, said. “This committee would be happy to work with you to advocate for those additional resources, but you need to be clear with us what you need and how we can work together to cut down that time frame. People are waiting and people are experiencing harassment today.”