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USDA paid out nearly $1 million in sexual harassment settlements since 2015
The USDA has paid out almost $1 million in sexual harassment settlements since 2005.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) paid out $911,700 to settle 20 complaints regarding sexual harassment since 2005, according to a document released to the Daily Dot in April.
The document only reveals the number of settlements each year and the total amount paid out for that year. In 2009, the agency paid six settlements totaling $182,700. In 2013, it settled two sexual harassment cases but paid out a total of $538,000, more than half the total amount paid in the last 13 years. The document does not break out the dollar amount paid for each case or detail the total number of harassment complaints at the agency.
The USDA comprises 29 departments and employs nearly 100,000 people throughout the country. The agency is responsible for overseeing the nation’s farms and food safety. The USDA, which is led by former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, also helps administer programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), encourages rural development, and provides subsidies to farmers. Under Perdue, the agency has supported initiatives like the Harvest Box, a Blue Apron-inspired replacement for SNAP that drew heavy criticism, and has supported the reversal of an Obama-era clean water initiative.
The agency has also come under scrutiny as accusations of sexual harassment within its ranks went public.
In February, USDA employee Rosetta Davis said she was the victim of sexual harassment throughout her 16-year career at the agency. In front of an audience of fellow USDA employees during a Black History Month event, Davis said she had consensual sex with D. Leon King, a director in the office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in exchange for a promotion.
Davis also said she filed four separate harassment claims, two of which the agency took no action on, one of which was settled, and a fourth that serves as the basis for litigation she is currently pursuing against the agency.
As of February, Davis had been placed on leave with the agency. The USDA answer questions about Davis’ employment status when reached by the Daily Dot.
According to attorney Yaida Ford, who is representing Davis, the USDA is known for retaliating against employees who file Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.
“Employees have to be coerced to file an EEO complaint because the second they do, they know it’s a scarlet letter,” Ford told Politico. “They are going to be retaliated against until they leave. That’s just the way it is at USDA.”
In testimony before Congress in December 2016, Denice Rice, a fire prevention technician with the USDA, echoed that sentiment, saying sexual harassment was routinely glossed over at the agency.
“I really love my job, but I have witnessed females being overlooked, not taken seriously, passed over, and not given equal opportunities,” Rice said. “This has also happened to me. Our agencies have provided protection for the perpetrators, [promoting or moving them] and victims are left with little or no relief. Many female firefighters are treated differently than the male firefighters for assignments, training, promotions, and working conditions. Women who report sexual harassment are retaliated against. It is your word against his and you know the moment you open your mouth to speak up you are committing career suicide.”
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The document obtained by the Daily Dot sheds new light on a major report from Politico in late 2016 that uncovered a backlog of thousands of unprocessed civil rights complaints.
The Politico report, published in the immediate aftermath of Rice’s testimony, mentions sexual harassment complaints dating back to 1995, particularly within the agency’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, which is responsible for handling all civil rights claims against the agency, including those involving sexual harassment.
“Before any cultural change can occur, the agency must acknowledge the scope of the problem and be willing to make a good-faith effort to address it,” Lesa Donnelly, a former USDA employee said to Politico.
However, Lenise Lago, a deputy chief of business operations at the U.S. Forest Service, a department of the USDA, said in testimony to Congress in 2016 that the agency is making strides in how it handled sexual harassment and that the cases the EEO received have dwindled.
In response to the questions from the Daily Dot about its handling of sexual harassment, an agency spokesperson said: “USDA takes all reports of sexual harassment very seriously. Supervisors and managers have the obligation to deal with inappropriate behavior by their employees and customers, to provide employees with information and training to employees on workplace violence, and to put effective security measures in place.”
The spokesperson also added that Employee Assistance Programs are available to any employee who experiences a traumatic event and that all USDA employees must go through annual civil rights training.
The spokesperson did not comment on the specific data released to the Daily Dot.
According to Lago’s testimony, her agency has strengthened its harassment policies in recent years, including “requiring management to notify leadership of a report of sexual harassment within 24 hours and initiate an investigation within three work days.”
You can view the USDA sexual harassment settlements below.
Have you experienced sexual harassment while working for the Department of Agriculture? Want to share your story with the Daily Dot? Please contact [email protected].
Ellen Ioanes is the FOIA reporter at the Daily Dot, where she covers U.S. politics. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School, and her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Center for Public Integrity, HuffPost India, and more.