Despite those accolades, some current and past employees of the Regional V.A. Office in Columbia say for years, the office has discriminated on the basis of race and gender.
1st. Sergeant Vontella Fludd is a retired Army veteran. The Elgin mother of two returned from her second tour of duty in Iraq four years ago. In all, she spent more than twenty years as human relations coordinator for the military. A painting of her family done by an Iraqi citizens reminds her of her days in the service.
“It reminds me of what kept me in Iraq. Not only did God keep me, but thinking about my family gave me peace,” Fludd said.
After retiring from active duty she wanted to remain in service to veterans, and Fludd applied for and was accepted to a lower-level position in the Claims Assistant Department at the Regional V.A. Office in Columbia.
“Because it was helping veterans, and I was in the field of H.R. helping soldiers, so I thought it would be a good job,” Fludd said.
But Sgt. Fludd says less than a year into her job as a file clerk, her viewpoint changed. She says she overheard a supervisor make sexist remarks about a co-worker, and when she reported it, Fludd says her superiors turned against her.
“I felt that after that it was reprisal for me turning in a statement. That’s when things began to happen,” she said.
Fludd says she tried repeatedly to change jobs or move up in the department. A promotion certificate dated December of 2006 lists Fludd as the best qualified candidate for a financial accounts technician position. Yet a few weeks later, a memorandum from within the Regional V.A. indicated her certificate was not to be used, and someone else was selected.
Application after application, Fludd’s two decades of experience in the same field did not earn her an advancement.
“Regardless of the position I applied for, even though I was qualified, I was not selected,” Fludd said.
Physically and mentally exhausted, she finally gave up.
“The pressure, the stress got to be too much for me, so I had to resign,” Fludd said.
Vontella Fludd is not the only person to claim discrimination at the Veteran’s Affairs Regional Office.
The American Federation of Government Employees has compiled years of data they say cites discrimination within the agency.
“I believe you can not accuse anybody of anything unless you have some facts or documents or something to prove what you’re saying,” said Ronald Robinson.
Robinson is the union vice president. He’s also worked for the V.A. for more than a decade. He also serves as a senior Veterans Service Representative for the V.A. When Robinson heard about Fludd’s case, he began to dig into what happened.
“The more I investigated, the worse it got,” Robinson said.
Here’s an example of what he found:
Since 2001, twenty-four people have served or are serving as program support or file clerks (like Fludd). Of the six Caucasian employees, all received a transfer or promotion with higher pay. Of the seventeen African American (and one Asian) employee, just four made the same advancement.
Organizational charts obtained by News 19 show that eight claims assistant bridge positions were created in 2002, yet a year later, the positions were removed.
“You have to ask yourself, if you don’t have these positions, who’s doing the job?” Robinson asked.
Earlier this year, union members, employees and veterans picketed outside the Assembly St. headquarters, protesting unrealistic production standards and the resulting backlog in claims processing.
They argue that equal employment opportunity settlements are taking money out of the V.A.’s budget—money that could otherwise be spent on veterans.
Between 2005 and 2007, EEO judgments resulted in approximately $200,000 in settlements. A civil suit (later mediated) cost the V.A. another $321,000. The complainants in the suits alleged unequal pay, sex and race discrimination, and reprisal.
During the same time period, documents show the Regional V.A. Office director received a $50,000 bonus.
“How can we as Americans say that’s a good investment on our tax dollars?” Robinson asked.
News 19 requested an interview with V.A. leaders about employee concerns. The request was denied by the Federal office, but a written statement was issued in response:
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Columbia Regional Office takes great pride in serving our Nation’s heroes and their dependents. To accomplish our mission, the regional office employs more than 300 employees, of whom over 60% are veterans themselves. This regional office is one of the top performing regional offices in the Nation thanks to our employees. The regional office received national recognition for its performance every year from 2002 to 2007.
Ensuring all employees have equal opportunity to compete for advancement in a workplace free from discrimination is, and will remain, a top priority at the Columbia Regional Office. A recent review of the current equal employment opportunity (EEO) issues raised at the Columbia VA Regional Office clearly indicates that these issues have been thoroughly investigated and found to be without merit. Additionally, an examination of personnel data indicates that during the tenure of the current Director, the Columbia Regional Office has increased the number of minorities that serve at all levels of employment. While the Columbia Regional Office has a diversified workforce that equitably represents the labor force and those we serve, VA management remains vigilant to ensure the principles of equal opportunity are upheld throughout the organization.
The statement continues:
No senior level management official, including the current RO Director, has been found liable of discrimination through any third party process. Settlement of a complaint is not an admission of wrong doing by any of the parties involved in the complaint.
A spokesperson added that EEO complaints are handled externally and that there is plenty of outside oversight for every internal decision made.
“We’re not trying to paint a picture that nothing [good] happens at our V.A. That wouldn’t be true. But we are saying there’s a problem and we need to fix it,” Robinson said.
After the two EEO settlements, two management officals at the V.A. resigned, and another received a reduced bonus and additional training.
The V.A. is unable to discuss Vontella Fludd’s employment as a file clerk due to privacy laws, but officials did state that work or military experience may be selection factors for a position.
“[It’s hard] for someone who’s been in the military for twenty years and is used to working hard and having that discipline that the military gives you,” Vontella said.
A stay-at-home mom now for the past seven months, Fludd says she’s no longer angry; she just wants others to know what she went through. For now, her best memories of serving her country are of her duties abroad; not at home.
“You would think that a vet—someone who’s been to Iraq twice—that you would get treated better. That once you came back, a ‘Thank You,’ and a ‘Welcome Back.’ But that was not the flavor in that building at all,” Fludd said.
Vontella Fludd is not a member of the union, but those who are have written legislators at the State House, lawmakers in Washington, and all kinds of third-party entities hoping for someone to take up their concerns. A week and a half ago, the union received an answer. Over the next few days, facilitators will be meeting with employees to improve labor management relations and to ensure any future issues are addressed.
The directive comes at the request of the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.