Survey finds race- and sex-based harassment ‘common’ at FEMA

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FILE – In this March 24, 2020, file photo, a portable cot, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency logo FEMA printed on the backrest, and other cots line the basketball court at a makeshift medical facility in a gymnasium at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H. More than a quarter of workers at the FEMAsay they have harassed or discriminated against based on their gender or race, according to a survey released Dec. 2, 2020, as part of the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment by a senior official at the agency. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — More than a quarter of employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they were harassed or discriminated against based on their gender or race, according to a survey released Wednesday as part of the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment by a senior official at the organization.

The survey by the RAND Corp. found that such civil rights violations were “common” at FEMA, reported by about 29% of the employees surveyed last year.

FEMA requested the survey in response to an internal report that found that the former head of the agency’s personnel office had improper sexual relationships with subordinates and created a “toxic” work environment, including by giving preferential treatment to his fraternity brothers.

The official resigned from FEMA and the agency took steps to address the allegations, including creating an office of professional responsibility and requiring all of the nearly 20,000 employees to undergo anti-harassment training.

FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor said the agency would be taking additional measures in the coming months.

“Even though the data from this survey is more than a year and a half behind us, these findings are alarming and simply not acceptable,” Gaynor said in a statement issued as the RAND survey data was released.

In a statement, the agency detailed a series of actions it has taken to address issues raised in the 2018 internal report, which included conducting an audit of hiring decisions taken under the former head of personnel and directing its Office of Equal Rights to address a backlog of cases.

FEMA also created a Culture Improvement Action Plan with the goal of ensuring employees feel “valued and can meet the mission to the best of their ability without fear and in an environment free of harassment and misconduct.”

The report featured responses from nearly 9,000 employees at the agency that leads the U.S. response to natural disasters and managed an airlift to bring in huge supplies of protective medical gear and equipment in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It found that 20% of FEMA employees reported harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex. A little more than 18% reported violations based on their race or ethnicity.

Few people felt comfortable reporting the violations, with employees saying they believed their complaint would not be addressed or they would face retaliation.

There are few, publicly available studies of employee discrimination with comparable data, so it is difficult to compare the FEMA results with other organizations. RAND conducted a similar study at the Department of Defense, but that population is more male and younger.

That earlier survey found 24% of women in the military experienced sexual harassment, slightly higher than what was found for women at FEMA.

The findings are also in line with an Edison Research 2018 poll that found 21% of Americans said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, including 27% of women and 14% of men.

Coreen Farris, the lead author of RAND’s report on FEMA, said the results will provide a baseline for a follow-up survey planned for this spring. “Changing organizational culture and climate is no easy task, but one vital component is measurement of the problem,” she said.

FEMA requested the study after the allegations against the former head of personnel led to an internal investigation that revealed systemic problems at the agency. The former official, Corey Coleman, resigned in June 2018, as the probe was underway.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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