MARTINEZ (KPIX 5) — The Department of Veterans Affairs has been under fire for not taking proper care of sick veterans but KPIX 5 learned it is also notorious for retaliating against whistleblowing employees. Several Bay Area VA workers have come forward anonymously, using different names, to describe a culture of harassment at their facilities.
One VA employee we’ll call Becky wants people to know what she says is going on behind the scenes at the VA out-patient clinic in Martinez.
She says a supervisor, Darryl Milburn, has been harassing her and stalking her for months.
“He appears wherever I am,” she told KPIX 5.
“I would come into work in the morning and he would just be standing in the doorway looking me up and down, like he could see me out of my clothes.”
She says when she tried to get reassigned to a new position he wanted to talk to her in the office.
“He asked me how bad did I want the job and he told me that he wanted to have sex with me.”
When she refused she says he slapped her on the rear as she walked out the door.
Becky is not the only one complaining. “Tara” works at the Oakland VA clinic, where Milburn is also a supervisor.
“He might not have sexually abused me but mentally … yes,” she said.
Tara filed a discrimination complaint, claiming Milburn is creating a hostile work environment for her because she’s older and disabled.
“He would go to extremes to humiliate me and I am sick of it,” she said.
But when the women took their stories to management they say no one took them seriously and they say nothing has been done to stop their alleged harasser from stalking them and picking on them.
“There are no repercussions,” said “Tabitha,” a recently-retired VA employee who worked at the Oakland clinic for 20 years. She says she often heard complaints about Milburn harassing employees.
“Some of them told me that in order to get the position that they had to have sex with him,” she said. “I don’t only blame him, I blame upper management. You should not have to work in that kind of environment, it should not even be tolerated,” she said.
“The VA has a culture of sexism and discrimination and retaliation and harassment that is more reminiscent of the 1950s than of 2016,” said Patricia Bangert, a civil rights attorney. She represents five women who say they were sexually assaulted by a supervisor at the VA clinic in Aurora, Colorado.
Bangert says VA employees are forced to go through a convoluted complaint process that can drag on for years with the odds against the employee. The average time to close a workplace complaint through the VA is 459 days and less than four percent of the complaints result in a finding of discrimination. Employees can then take their complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That takes on average another 419 days. Just over five percent of those complaints result in findings of discrimination.
That’s about two and a half years, on average, for the complaint process. Bangert says in many cases it’s even longer — three, four, even five years.
“There is no real method of getting immediate relief,” she said. The effect is that whistleblowers are not only discouraged, but in her clients’ cases, “Immediately after reporting the assaults, the VA initiated a campaign of retaliation and harassment against the employees,” she said.
That’s what happened to Becky. She got written up for 11 incidents in the weeks following her first complaints to management for things like “patient scheduling error” and allegedly being late. She was eventually demoted.
Her disabled co-worker was reassigned to a job her doctor confirms she couldn’t physically handle. “He wanted to move me to a counter, that wouldn’t work for me. I am disabled, you have to respect that,” she said.
In a statement to KPIX 5, a spokesperson for the VA’s Northern California Health Care System which oversees the Martinez and Oakland clinics, said: “We are not able to comment any further on this particular case due to it being under review with our management team and we respect the due process of every concern. At VA Northern California Health Care System there is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind. We take every concern seriously as we fulfill our duties to maintain a work environment free of all forms of harassment.”
As for Milburn, after agreeing to an interview he had a change of heart and told KPIX 5 reporters to get off his property.
Distrustful of the VA, both women went to the county courthouse and filed for restraining orders against Milburn.
We asked Becky what it has been like since. “It’s been really uncomfortable,” she said. “I am just, like, not able to sleep having to go to that place because he still comes around me and I don’t know if he wants to attack me now. It makes me feel like I should have never exposed him. Because I have to work and I might lose my job behind it. And now I know why the other ladies don’t say anything.”
The VA has moved the two restraining order cases to federal court and asked the court to dismiss the cases, claiming the women can only sue the government, not a federal employee. The VA is also asking to the court to dissolve the restraining orders against Milburn.
The union representative for the employees confirmed to KPIX 5 that there have been prior complaints about the supervisor.