Oct. 1 (UPI) -- The Government Accountability Office plans to investigate claims of systemic racism within the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to lawmakers.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, requested the investigation after an August survey of 1,500 union-affiliated VA employees said nearly 80% of staffers considered racism a moderate or serious issue in the agency.
Half of those who responded to the survey had personally witnessed racism directed at veterans.
"Reports that racism is a serious problem at VA are especially concerning and demand rigorous scrutiny as our country works to confront systemic racism across our institutions ... Racism and racial discrimination at VA must be taken seriously, and the steps to address it must be robust and enduring," said a joint statement from Schatz and Warren.
The audit is expected to begin in six months.
According to the VA, about 40 percent of the agency's employees are racial minorities, and in 2019 the agency substantiated about 70 claims of equal opportunity violations.
"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said. "The senators' request to GAO is nothing more than a shameful attempt to besmirch the reputations of hundreds of thousands of dedicated career government employees at VA."
The American Federation of Government employees, which represents about 270,000 of the 400,000 people who work for the VA, welcomed the investigation.
The union successfully sued the Federal Labor Relations Authority this summer for limiting federal workers' bargaining rights, and has AFGE president Everett Kelley has said the problem of racism within the VA has been exacerbated under President Donald Trump's administration.
Last week Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said top military brass are working to remove identifying information -- including photos but also names and other information that could reveal the applicant's race or gender -- from promotion packets.
And this summer the Pentagon created a Board on Diversity and Inclusion which is soliciting input from service members via crowdsourcing and other means on the best ways to improve diversity and inclusion within military ranks.