House Panel Discusses VA Diversification Efforts

May 6, 2021 by Victoria Turner
U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – By late 2020 over 2800 formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaints of discrimination – by race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and more – were submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The fact that there are that many complaints in one year points out there is still a great deal of work to be done, said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., at a congressional hearing Thursday.

However, with President Joe Biden’s reversal of the former president’s executive order last fall striking down the VA’s diversity and inclusion training program, and with VA Secretary Denis McDonough’s zero-tolerance approach to discrimination, the lawmakers and witnesses alike expressed optimism for an upcoming, sustainable change. 

These efforts of the VA were discussed at a House subcommittee hearing discussing the VA’s efforts to transform its workforce in a diverse, inclusive and equitable way.

When you first look at the VA workforce, it looks diverse, with nearly 43% non-white employees and 51% women, continued Pappas. When you look closer, however, “they are significantly underrepresented in VA’s most senior job roles,” he explained. Black females make up about 17% of the VA’s workforce, but only 6% of these senior roles. Their White male counterparts, on the other hand, make up 50% of these most senior positions, but only comprise 23% of the overall VA workforce. 

It is imperative to fix the “diversity problem among senior ranks” in order to “[make] a real change” in the culture of the VA, said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the full committee. 

Dr. Sheila Elliot, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2328 said that efforts to improve diversity and inclusion also need to be taken more seriously all the way down to the VA local facilities. Despite her facility receiving training on the “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities over the past year she charged, “I have not seen a difference in the way the employees are being processed.” 

And the business case for diversity, inclusion and equity is “just as sound” as the “undisputable” moral case, said Rick Wade, senior vice president of strategic alliances and outreach at the US Chamber of Commerce. If the US closes its “racial equity gap,” he explained, the American economy is poised to attain $8 trillion by 2050. 

McDonough has also established a new “IDEA” – inclusion, diversity, equity and access – task force, said Harvey Johnson, deputy assistant secretary at the VA’s office of resolution management, diversity and inclusion. Alongside incorporating an “enterprise-wide approach” across the agency, and “equity assessments in underserved communities,” the VA’s new task force will execute “conscious IDEA” to identify “bright spots” and “pain points” throughout the VA system. 

“This is not just about leaders, it’s a call-to-action for everybody at the VA,” Johnson said.

The “business case is what makes the most sense because people understand dollars and cents, “ said Victor LaGroon, director and chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council. But, he added, “Without the proper oversight, none of this would transpire.” These initiatives need accountability and “broad oversight,” with proper data analytics to drive “real-time” solutions and change, he explained. 

For example, instead of an “affinity group” coming in during the last day of Black History month, Elliot said, “doing something on an ongoing basis” is needed. “Those groups tend to be only active during that particular month, rather than looking at a broad yearlong approach,” she said. 

The VA could take a note from the Fortune 500 companies’ affinity groups equivalents, the employee resources groups, LaGroon suggested. These ERGs are “a resource and tool” that doesn’t “only provide diversity and inclusion, but also cultural competency within the organization,” he explained, echoing Elliot’s “yearlong” imperative. 

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