Representative Elizabeth Esty urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to address the “pervasive culture of sexual harassment” within the VA, which was exposed in a recent survey conducted by the government’s independent Merit Systems Protection Board.
The board’s survey found that 26 percent of female employees and 14 percent of male employees at the VA said they experienced sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016 — among the highest rates of sexual harassment of any federal agency.
In a letter to acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke, Esty questioned how the VA’s 370,000 employees can effectively serve veterans when the Department is unable to provide its own employees with a safe and harassment-free work environment.
“We owe it to our veterans and Department employees to do better as leaders in this area. Changing workplace culture starts with the leaders of an organization being accountable for their own words and actions and setting the right example for their employees,” she said.
Her letter follows a request from New Hampshire Representative Annie Kuster last week called on the House Veterans Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the issue. Kuster is the ranking Democrat on the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Kuster urged Representative Jack Bergman, a Michigan Republican who chairs the committee, to “conduct a thorough investigation into the causes” behind the results of the MSPB report and whether the problem has persisted beyond the survey’s end date in 2016. She also wants VA officials identified and held accountable if they failed to address reports of sexual harassment.
Esty decided not to seek re-election after admitting that she mishandled a sexual harassment complaint against her former chief of staff several years ago which came to light this year.
In her letter to O’Rourke, Esty urged him to take a closer look at their sexual harassment training and prevention programs, policies addressing employee behavior and conduct, and resources for employees and supervisors on how to handle grievances, including sexual harassment complaints.
“Changing workplace culture starts with the leaders of an organization being accountable for their own words and actions and setting the right example for their employees. I ask that you prioritize addressing the pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Department for the sake of the morale of our veterans and the employees who serve them,” she wrote.
Esty also noted that between 1998 and 2018, the VA has settled over 250 claims involving allegations of sexual harassment and paid claimants upward of $9 million. Of that $9 million, $4 million went toward sexual harassment claims where that was the only charge.
According to the MSPB, over 25 percent of women at the VA have experienced some sort of sexual harassment over the past two years — five percent higher than the government average of 20 percent — making it the second highest percentage of all the federal agencies surveyed. Upward of 15 percent of men at the VA also reported instances of sexual harassment, compared to less than 10 percent government-wide, Esty said.