WASHINGTON — VA needs to do more to ensure workforce equity, inclusion and diversity, especially in its senior leadership roles, according to legislators and employee advocates.
That effort might be hamstrung, however, by years of inconsistent focus on diversity issues and an ingrained culture resistant to change.
“I’ve heard stories often enough of employees experiencing racism and other discrimination at VA facilities,” declared Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, at a hearing on the issue last month. “I’ve also seen too many media stories … where some of the agency’s hospitals and other facilities seem blind to the problem. And often employees feel helpless.”
On the surface, Pappas said, the numbers look good. VA employees are 61% female and 43% nonwhite. Those numbers do not extend into VA’s senior positions, with women and most minorities underrepresented in leadership roles, he added. For example, Black women make up 17% of VA’s workforce but only 6% of senior career positions. Conversely, white men make up 23% of VA’s workforce but 50% of senior career positions.
Also, Hispanic employees are underrepresented at VA at approximately half the rate of their representation in the labor force and have a higher separation rate compared to the civilian sector.
“VA officials identified the solution and sought more staff and funding, but those requests went unfulfilled,” Pappas explained. “Also VA had to pause its diversity and inclusion training program due to the former president’s executive order.”
In September 2020, President Donald Trump issued an order suspending some diversity training in federal agencies, calling it “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” President Joe Biden immediately reversed course, signing an executive order in January that requires federal agencies to complete an equity assessment within 200 days.
In April, VA Secretary Denis McDonough tasked a 120-day equity, inclusion and diversity task force with examining VA’s policies and what needs to change in order to improve equity at the department.
“The task force will leverage VA’s [existing] diversity and use it as a major source of strength,” explained Harvey Johnson, VA deputy assistant secretary, Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion. “[It will be] identifying and researching the moments that matter for employees’ entire work experience throughout VA, from recruitment to retirement or resignation. Identifying bright spots and pain points. Identifying insights into barriers.”
The new administration’s embrace of diversity efforts has yet to be realized at the facility level, noted Sheila Elliot, PharmD, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2328 at the Hampton, VA, VAMC.
“We had some training on reasonable accommodation in the past year, but I have not seen any change in the way employees are being processed through that program,” Elliot explained. Reasonable accommodation requests are filed when an employee with a disability asks for a change in their work environment to allow them to do their job.
“So that tells me we’re checking off boxes, but we’re not really addressing the root cause. And our managers and human resources people are not buying into it,” she pointed out.
Elliot suggested that the years of ignoring diversity as a serious issue means that change will not come quickly.
“We’ve had years and years of anti-employee, anti-union analysts. Those people still work at the department,” Elliot explained. “Within the last four years, more people have been brought in, and those people have the same sorts of ideas. Despite the fact that the president and our secretary—their heart is in making change—there is resistance that we see from central office to the VISN down to the facilities.”
Victor LaGroon, director and chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, added that this resistance to change is compounded because of the federal government’s own inconsistent focus on diversity and inclusion.
“We haven’t done enough historically. This goes beyond the last previous two administrations; it’s a systemwide issue, and it’s become a cultural issue,” LaGroon testified. “There are people who have worked there long enough that they don’t buy into change. We recognize that some people know they can wait out an administration. We need to have the system in place so that, no matter who the secretary is, who the president is, this body can be assured that veterans are being treated in an equitable way.”
Johnson said he believes that VA and his office have a real chance at enacting meaningful change in the department by embracing the principles of conscious inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA). Conscious IDEA is meant to foster a culture that minimizes bias and recognizes and addresses system-wide inequities rather than ignoring them.
He pointed to recent efforts at the Kansas City VAMC as an example of the agency’s success in this area.
In June 2020, Black employees at the hospital were asked by management to act as living installations in a Black History museum, part of a planned Juneteenth celebration. Employees were asked to play characters like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police officers sparked the ongoing anti-police protest movement.
The request was the last straw for employees who went public with years of complaints about discrimination and racist behavior at the hospital.
According to Johnson, VA has appointed 12 special emphasis program managers and is in the process of hiring a diversity and inclusion officer for the hospital.
“The special emphasis program managers will review policies, practices, and procedures to help eliminate any discrimination against minorities, women, and people with disabilities, and report their findings to the medical center director,” Johnson explained. “We are taking a similar enterprise approach with VA medical centers in Dublin [Georgia], Milwaukee and Bedford [Massachusetts].”
As for how to judge whether VA is succeeding in its diversity efforts, the metrics don’t exist to adequately track that, Johnson said. “An internal workgroup has just kicked off and that includes measures and metrics, and we are going to look for ways to show that VA is changing.”