VA plans will ‘take far too long’ to address sexual harassment

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has had a pervasive problem of sexual harassment over the past few years for both agency employees and patients, according a study conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which found that approximately one in four female employees reported experiencing sexual harassment in a two year period.

That harassment comes at the hands of both fellow employees and patients, with 25 percent of female veteran patients reporting inappropriate comments by other patients and 29 percent of employees reporting that their sexual harassment was at the hands of the customer or patient.

Current VA policy does not mandate that managers report all disclosures of sexual harassment to agency officials, making it difficult to get a complete picture of where and when the cases happen.

“VA is not doing enough, and the ongoing pervasiveness of sexual harassment hinders patients’ ability to get care and employees’ ability to do their jobs effectively,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., at a July 22 House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing.

And while a Government Accountability Office report found July 15 that the agency is working on initiatives to collect better information on sexual harassment and improve policy, their timelines for those changes are planned to span the next several years.

Plans to realign the Veterans Health Administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program Managers, who are responsible for taking sexual harassment complaints, are not projected to start until 2024.

“The timelines stated to implement these recommendations will take far too long,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif.

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According to the GAO report, the VA intends to develop a plan for ensuring consistent sexual harassment policies by the end of December 2020 and implement it starting in March 2021.

The agency also plans to formalize the directive for its Harassment Prevention Program, which was created four years ago, by December 2020, and develop a system to have managers report harassment data and corrective actions to the HPP beginning in September 2021.

According to Cindy Brown Barnes, director of the Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team at the Government Accountability Office, some of those timelines — like the reporting of harassment and corrective action data — rely on the agency’s development of a new data portal, to ensure that each component of the agency reports in the same manner.

But other initiatives, like the plans to realign VHA EEO program managers, could be moved up on the timetables.

VA officials testifying at the hearing stated that part of the challenge in cutting down timelines was a limited budget in the VA’s general administration account, which received a cut in the last budget cycle.

“The $59 million cut … effects my ability to do force modernization. It effects my ability to do Section 505 of the MISSION Act to put a manpowered management system in place. It also effects our ability to do labor negotiations,” said Dan Sitterly, assistant secretary for human resources and administration/operations, security and preparedness at the VA.

Timelines for getting resolution to harassment complaints are also drawn out and can last as long as 1,100 days, if the employee requests a hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich.

According to Sitterly, VA has control over at most 120 days, which span the informal resolution, investigation and dispute resolution processes, at which point the employee has the option to take their case to the EEOC.

Pamela Powers, acting deputy secretary at the VA, testified that the agency has done a lot of work in the past couple of years to reduce sexual harassment, including launching a harassment prevention campaign and increasing employee outreach.

“We are optimistic that our efforts are making a difference,” said Powers,

But members on the committee noted that they would need more to tell their constituents to explain why GAO-recommended improvements would take so long to put in place.

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Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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