VA Hires White Employees to Management at Nearly Twice the Rate of Blacks, Union Says

A man walks in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters.
A man wearing a protective mask walks in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Stephen J. Caruso)

Minority hiring for management positions within the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased over the past three years, but white applicants continue to get jobs at nearly twice the rate of Black or Asian applicants, according to data released Thursday by the American Federation of Government Employees. They also get promoted to management nearly twice as often.

Before the Government Accountability Office announced plans earlier this month to review the VA's practices and policies regarding racism and diversity, AFGE filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the racial and ethnic breakdown of the department's managerial hires dating to 2017.

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According to the data, management selection rates for all groups have risen fairly steadily since 2017, with the exception of Hawaiian Natives and Pacific Islanders, but white employees were consistently promoted at nearly twice the rate of Blacks, Asians and those who identified as being more than one race.

In 2017, the selection rate for whites to management positions was 2.7%, while the rate for Blacks was 1.8%. It was .06% for those of two or more races, 1.3% for Asians, 1.1% for Native Americans, 2% for Hispanics, 5% for Pacific Islanders and 3.2% for those who did not identify themselves as belonging to any racial or ethnic group.

By 2019, the rates were as follows:

  • Whites, 4.6%
  • Blacks, 2.4%
  • Those of two or more races, 1.7%
  • Asians, 2.8%
  • Native Americans, 3.9%
  • Hispanics or Latinos, 3%
  • Pacific Islanders, 2.7%
  • Those who did not identify, 4.4%

The rates dropped significantly for Pacific Islanders because of the small numbers who applied or were hired from year to year.

Through July of this year, the selection rates remained fairly consistent across the board, rising slightly to 2.5% among Blacks and dipping to 4.3% for whites and 3.7% for those who chose not to identify their race or ethnicity.

AFGE National President Everett Kelley called the statistics "troubling" and said they validate complaints from union members that racism is institutional at the VA.

A survey of VA employees conducted by the union earlier this year found that 78% of respondents said racism was a "moderate or serious problem" at the department. More than three-quarters of respondents said they experience "racially charged actions" at work, and 55% said they saw racial discrimination against veterans on the job.

"These ... statistics point to an underlying bias at the VA against Black workers and validate the complaints our members have shared regarding the systemic racism they face every day while simply trying to serve our nation's veterans and war heroes," Kelley said in a release Thursday.

The GAO announced Oct. 1 that it will investigate hiring and promotion practices at the department, as well as its diversity policies and practices. The study is in response to a request from Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, to determine how racism affects VA employees and veterans in offices, when applying for benefits, in medical care and elsewhere.

According to the GAO, the investigation will begin in six months.

On Thursday, when questioned about AFGE's concerns with minority hiring, VA spokeswoman Christina Noel called the union "one of the least credible authorities in this country regarding racial equality."

She said the union referenced data that was incomplete, adding that the 2% selection rate difference is "due to the fact that these positions had 50% or more white applicants."

"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," Noel said. "As a result of VA's commitment to fair and equal treatment of all employees, the department has boosted its rating from 17th to 6th among large federal agencies in the Partnership for Public Service's annual "best places to work" survey of federal employees."

As for the GAO study, she added, it is "nothing more than a shameful attempt to besmirch the reputations of hundreds of thousands of dedicated career government employees at VA."

"Perhaps the senators should look into the troubling allegations of AFGE's work environment rather than the department, which has seen unprecedented improvement since the scandal-ridden days of the Obama administration," Noel said.

AFGE has accused the VA of undermining its authority by rejecting calls to bargain over executive orders that deal with employees' performance evaluations, disciplinary actions and the amount of time workers can spend on union activities.

"Our 265,000 bargaining unit employees have everything to lose if we allow the current president and VA secretary to destroy what we have worked so hard to build," AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a release.

The VA has defended its negotiations over collective bargaining as a "reset in VA's approach to labor-management relations" that will renew focus on serving veterans rather than on union benefits.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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