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The Problem of Sexual Harassment in the Department of Veterans Affairs

Written by John Winer

January 4, 2021

Recent revelations indicate that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has had a prevalent problem of sexual harassment over the past few years. According to a study conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, nearly one in four Veterans Affairs employees experienced sexual harassment between 2014 and 2016. Now a recent report found that America’s six leading veteran’s organizations have joined together to demand the resignation of the secretary of Veterans Affairs after a federal investigation found he aimed to discredit a female veteran who filed a sexual harassment claim instead of properly investigating the matter. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, the United States Government Accountability Office found that some aspects of the policies and the complaint processes may hinder those efforts.

In a letter signed by leaders from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, and Vietnam Veterans of America, veterans are calling on President Donald Trump to fire VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for his mishandling of sexual assault and harassment allegations. The claims come after an inspector general inquiry criticized the secretary of Veterans Affairs for a response that was deemed to be unprofessional after a female Navy veteran, who is the senior policy adviser for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, reported a sexual assault at a department medical center in 2019. According to the New York Times, the letter detailed how the veteran groups had lost all confidence in Wilkie’s ability to lead the government’s second-largest department after it was found he had acted unprofessionally and unethically. The groups are asking the president to act in the last weeks of his administration, noting that Wilkie had refused to accept responsibility and was refusing to resign, claiming he “will continue to lead the department.”

An audit report released in June by the United States Government Accountability Office found that roughly one in four employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in recent years, and one in three staff have witnessed instances of harassment. Federal News Network reported that about 22% of Department of Veterans Affairs employees claimed they experienced sexual harassment at work over a two-year period, and 14% of federal employees across government said they experienced harassment during the same two-year period. The numbers are likely to be higher because the Veterans Affairs department does not have a centralized system to collect and track harassment complaints, and managers are not required to report instances of sexual harassment to a central office.

In response to the allegations, the Department of Veterans Affairs stated that by the end of December 2020, it will have developed a plan to ensure consistency of sexual harassment policies throughout the department, and it will begin implementing this plan by the end of March 2021. They also stated that they would develop a system for managers to report sexual harassment allegations, and it will restructure the agency’s sexual harassment prevention training for all employees to make it more impactful, and that such training would be assigned to every employee based on their role with implementation planned by the end of September 2021.

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