A bipartisan group of lawmakers are pressing Veterans Affairs officials to “do better” in dealing with sexual harassment at department facilities, including expanding training on the issue to all employees and contractors.
“Sexual harassment not only creates a barrier to healthcare, but to all resources and benefits that women veterans have earned,” key leaders from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Tuesday.
“Moreover, VA employees who experience sexual harassment are not empowered to serve veterans to the best of their abilities and talents because they feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work.”
The message comes less than two weeks after VA officials testified before the committee on challenges facing women veterans. Several lawmakers then questioned why department anti-harassment training is not mandatory across all VA offices, and why more thorough records of harassment cases are not kept by VA’s central office.
“VA must do better,” states the letter, whose signers include committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. “As the agency entrusted with providing healthcare and benefits to veterans, VA must take immediate and appropriate action to address toxic workplaces from the local level to VA Central Office.”
A department-backed study released in February found that more than one in four women veterans who visited a VA facility in the prior year experienced inappropriate behavior from men, either employees or other patients.
The findings followed a 2018 report from the Merit System Protection Board which found VA had the highest rate of sexual harassment among employees of any federal agency. About 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported sexual harassment incidents.
In a statement, VA officials said they will respond to lawmakers directly about their concerns but noted the department launched its “End Harassment of Veterans” campaign in 2017, and used training materials from the program at all VA facilities.
“Employees have been trained on culture change efforts, including an awareness of the experiences of women veterans and ways to intervene and respond,” the statement said.
VA officials also note that the department had only six Equal Employment Opportunity findings of discrimination involving sexual harassment over the last two years.
But lawmakers said they want the department to go further. They’re asking for a plan to require sexual harassment training throughout the 350,000-plus employees at the department, and for more monitoring of complaints at a national level.
Earlier this month, Defense Department officials announced plans to look into making sexual harassment in the ranks a criminal offense, a move they said would also underscore the need for cultural changes within the military after a rise in sexual abuse reports over the last two years.