More than three-quarters of VA employees report that racism is a moderate to severe problem at VA facilities, according to a survey released by the American Federation of Government Employees. Photo from AFGE website.

WASHINGTON — More than three-quarters of VA employees report that racism is a moderate to severe problem at VA facilities, according to a survey released by the American Federation of Government Employees. The AFGE, which represents 270,000 VA workers, contends the problem has only grown worse in recent years and that VA Secretary Robert Willkie is failing to address the issue. 

The survey of 1,500 VA workers nationwide asked about employees’ experience with racially charged actions while on the job, the impact of systemic racism at VA and how much these things have affected their job caring for veterans. According to the results, 76% reported having experienced racially charged actions; 65% said they believe it makes their job harder; and 55% recounted having witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while on the job. Overall, 78% called racism a moderate to severe problem in the agency.

According to AFGE, more than 40% of their members at VA identify as people of color. 

“It’s shocking in 2020 not only are we still having to contend with racism at an agency of the federal government, but that it’s getting worse,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley in a press statement following the survey’s release last month. “These survey results are shocking and unacceptable and must be addressed.”

As part of the release of the results, AFGE included statements from VA employees testifying to racism they have witnessed or experienced at the agency.

Racist Behavior

“I have personally witnessed rampant racism at my VA facility, including hearing racial slurs and seeing colleagues of color being denied promotions in favor of lesser-experienced white staffers,” said Kevin Ellis, president of AFGE Local 2338 in Poplar Bluff, MO. “Things have only gotten worse since Robert Wilkie’s appointment. I feel like his ties to pro-Confederate groups have emboldened racist behavior inside VA. I’m sad to see that fear of retaliation has intimidated many in silence, while VA leadership is so quick to protect our white colleagues.”

Wilkie is a former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and has given speeches at meetings of that organization—a fact that he neglected to disclose prior to his confirmation. That information has frequently been cited by AFGE and other critics of the VA secretary as evidence that combating racism will not be a priority for him.

In a letter to Wilkie, Alma Lee, AFGE’s National VA Council president, wrote, “Since your appointment it has become abundantly clear that not only are there persistent issues of systemic racism and incidents of racial bias taking place at VA facilities around the country, but that your leadership has cultivated a culture of permissibility in which these issues and incidents go unaddressed.”

In her letter, Lee goes on to list steps that Wilkie and VA can take to begin addressing racism. Those include: acknowledging that racism is a widespread problem at VA facilities; confirming that all VA workplaces must be free from bigotry, harassment and retaliation and taking steps to ensure this; and meet with AFGE leadership to discuss best practices in combating racism. 

Lee also urged Wilkie to reconsider a recent VA proposal for the new collective bargaining agreement with AFGE that would deny staff who have filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint to have representation during EEO interviews. 

The survey comes during a period of record-high tension between AFGE and VA. Collective bargaining negotiations between VA and the union have been stalled for well over a year in part due to directives by President Donald Trump that set a hard line against federal union activity. 

The Kansas City VAMC is one of several agency facilities where employees are starting to speak out about racism they’ve experienced on the job. In March, over 20 past and current employees came forward claiming racial discrimination. Since then, more employees have spoken publicly, complaints have been officially filed, and at least two lawsuits are ongoing.

Charmayne Brown, who spent 17 years as a nurse at the medical center, filed 18 complaints of racial discrimination and says she would not have retired last year if not for the racism she experienced regularly. 

“I retired because I was tired of suffering these injustices every day,” Brown said. “I am not more determined than ever before to shed light on these issues.”