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New report shows VA has a way to go on handling harassment cases

10Investigates found only 15% of cases at a local VA resulted in a firing.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. —

Just past the walls greeting you to St. Petersburg’s VA Hospital, a former employee says what she experienced was unwanted. 

“Definitely crossing the line,” she said. 

This person who asked us to hide their identity says what happened is documented in this fact-finding report — they alleged back in June 2021 another employee made lewd comments and put their arm around them. 

"[I] found it was happening to others. I finally had enough,” she said. 

They explained it wasn’t the first time the alleged employee made inappropriate comments like, “You’re so f*in hot, nice boobs."  

While the report states the touch was a side hug and mutually given according to video evidence, it does say the allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace which includes multiple incidences of lewd verbal comments made to female employees was founded. 

“During the process, I wasn’t updated. I just assumed he was fired,” the accuser said. 

But that wasn’t the case. Not only was this employee disciplined according to the report for lack of candor and participating in some of the banter. The co-worker was given a one-day suspension and was back on the floor. 

The two would be working opposite shifts. 

“Working opposite shifts gives me zero flexibility. I can’t move shifts," the accuser said. 

The VA has an entire section on its website all about not tolerating harassment or assault of any kind.  

We wanted to know, if the VA doesn’t tolerate any sort of sexual harassment, then what has happened to others who have broken this policy? The VA could only get us records dating back to 2015 and wouldn’t tell us any details about the actual complaint — just the outcome. 

In one, an employee had an allegation of inappropriate conduct of sexual nature towards a co-worker that was found sustained. They were suspended for 10 days. 

Of all the Bay Pines employees who were found to have violated the VA’s sexual harassment policy going back to 2015, there were two admonishments, five 3-day suspensions, two 10-day suspensions, one 14-day suspension, three recommended removals with Last Chance Agreements and just two people fired.

“Everybody should have a safe working environment,” Congressman Gus Bilirakis said. 

He added recently a bill signed into law brings more teeth to the VA’s zero-tolerance policy. It went into effect in June 2021. 

“Even before our legislation, there should be no allowance of this,” Bilirakis said. 

But a new report 10 Investigates obtained from the US Government Accountability Office found the VA has only implemented two of the seven recommendations from their 2020 sexual harassment report and significant issues still prevent the agency from effectively protecting its employees. Without additional action, it says the VA will likely continue to be among agencies with a high percentage of employees reporting being harassed. 

“When it comes to sexual harassment policy, a slap on the wrist is a big concern,” Bilirakis said. 

We reached out to Bay Pines VA asking them to sit down and talk with us about how they handle harassment cases and told us they cannot discuss individual cases due to privacy regulations.

“VA’s Harassment Prevention Policy outlines actions that must be taken on receipt of a harassment allegation. You can view the policy here: https://www.va.gov/ORMDI/docs/VA_Directive_5979_2020.pdf. Further, each allegation of harassment is analyzed based on the facts and evidence presented," Bay Pines VA said in a statement. "Federal employment law also requires the Deciding Official to consider each employee’s situation based upon the specific facts of the alleged misconduct, which can result in different outcomes based upon different facts. 

"Employees have the ability to appeal the decision."

 

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