By Víctor Luis Rodríguez Velázquez
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The absence of a tracking system of sexual harassment cases at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the lack of a uniform process for investigating complaints were the main findings of an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (DHS-OIG).
The audit found that FEMA did not always adequately report and investigate internal allegations of sexual misconduct —including sexual assault, unwelcome sexual advances, and sexual comments— at its operations in the United States and its territories. The finding came after the DHS-OIG analyzed 305 complaints about sexual harassment by evaluating 7,000 internal FEMA documents dated between 2012 and 2018.
Several months ago, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) interviewed and reviewed official documents from 19 people who work or worked at the FEMA Joint Recovery Office in Puerto Rico, which oversees the recovery process after Hurricanes Irma and María.
This documented a pattern of gender-based violence, sexual and/or workplace harassment that Puerto Rican employees have experienced by supervisors and coworkers between 2018 and 2021. The affected people joined together to expose FEMA’s negligence in addressing these situations, as the DHS-OIG audit now confirms.
For example, the audit mentions that a person —whose origin was not revealed — alleged that, in the workplace, several FEMA employees talked about having sexual relations and that a colleague told her that “to keep her job she had to have sex with him.”
Although the male coworker was removed and FEMA’s Anti-Harassment Unit (AHU) said it would investigate the matter, seven months after the allegation, the case remained open with no outcome.
A study on sexual harassment in the workplace referred to by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) indicates that the magnitude and effects of being victims of this type of situation in the workplace are not understood fully, as it is estimated that only six percent of workers who suffer sexual harassment report the incident.
No Evidence of Investigations or Disciplinary Action
Of the 305 complaints documented in the audit, FEMA was unable to prove that it acted on 153 of them. The FEMA offices responsible for investigating and disciplining employees for this type of conduct do not keep evidence of the investigations or disciplinary actions, the report concludes.
The DHS-OIG was also unable to determine whether FEMA fully investigated documented complaints adequately. Furthermore, the audit stated that FEMA did not review sexual harassment complaints prior to giving promotions or jobs.
Office personnel handling these matters, such as the Fraud and Internal Investigations Division, the Labor and Employee Relations Branch, and the Office of Equal Rights (OER), said they had a hard time keeping documents and tracking cases because they do not have an adequate management system that allows consolidating the files for each complaint.
The DHS-OIG said to be “concerned” about missing information of allegations related to Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policies, given that in 2010 DHS established a digital platform to report and handle these types of complaints and to which FEMA had access.
Although it is recommended at the federal level that EEO and sexual harassment complaints be dealt with separately, the auditors found 26 files that contained both situations. In the absence of reports of these cases, it could not be determined whether a separate investigation for sexual harassment was necessary.
According to FEMA officials, only one internal investigation was conducted into a complaint that included violations of the equal opportunity policy and sexual misconduct. However, the complaint about sexual harassment was not addressed until the equal opportunity investigation was completed, instead of doing so simultaneously.
The negligence attributed in the audit to the Office of Equal Rights was another of the recurring complaints among the people in Puerto Rico who offered their testimonies to the CPI. For example, one person who filed a complaint —who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation— said this FEMA office has dragged its feet when it comes to dealing with her sexual harassment complaints against two supervisors, and they have not provided her with any remedy or protection and they have even passed her over, after the complaints were filed, for permanent positions she as applied to on several occasions.
Anti-Harassment Unit Slacks Off When Addressing Complaints
The absence of tangible investigations and the excessive delay in handling complaints were other findings in the work done by FEMA’s Anti-Harassment Unit (AHU).
Although FEMA bragged about investigating sexual harassment claims “immediately” and taking “appropriate action,” the audit found at least 34 allegations that the AHU did not pursue.
It identified 12 cases that took the division more than 100 days to complete. The investigation lasted more than 200 days for three of those cases, when it is supposed to take 30 days to process those types of cases.
When the DHS-OIG raised questions about the delay, AHU personnel said they “did not have the documented processes and policies needed to effectively handle sexual harassment allegations.”
The DHS-OIG provided an online survey to more than 19,000 FEMA employees in 2019 to collect data on experiences of sexual harassment, which was answered by 9,263 employees in the United States and its territories.
Of these responses, 765 indicated having experienced some type of behavior associated with inappropriate sexual conduct in their workplace; and 255, or one-third, said they did not report it because they did not believe the allegations would be investigated. Thirty-three percent of the responses came from people who work on-site in disaster recovery missions, as is the case with the Puerto Rico operation.
Puerto Rican Victims React
Three of the victims who shared their testimonies with the CPI were not surprised by the findings the DHS-OIG revealed in its audit. They insisted that it confirms what they have been denouncing for a long time and even adds to the chain of frustrations that they carry after filing sexual harassment complaints against supervisors and co-workers.
“[The audit] is a slap on the wrist. They were told: ‘Don’t do it anymore.’ But they don’t hold anyone responsible for the actions. They’re not liable. They’re like politicians who believe they are untouchable. But if DHS and FEMA carried out a more serious and in-depth examination and held accountable the offenders and people who didn’t do their job well in the investigation, it would be a different story,” said María, a fictitious name to protect her identity.
María said she was the victim of an attack in an elevator when a FEMA employee, flown in from the United States, tried to forcibly kiss her. Although she informed an immediate supervisor, she asked him not to escalate the matter or file a formal complaint against her attacker for fear of losing her job. She said the finding of the DHS-OIG audit —related to the negligence in handling these types of complaints at FEMA— confirms her concerns not to report her attacker.
“Imagine such delicate complaints, such as an accusation of sexual misconduct, in that environment and that those who are supposed to support you and look out for you agree with the leadership at the top; nobody is going to dare denounce anything. What happens is that you don’t dare to because you don’t want to be labeled as problematic. The ‘cronies’ ignore it and protect each other even though we’re talking about improper and even criminal behavior,” she said.
Agreeing with her is Carmen, also a fictitious name, who has an open complaint at FEMA against her former supervisor for workplace harassment and a second one against another employee for sexual harassment.
“It’s a front to shut us up, both before the media and the victims. They aren’t solving the problem; the attackers are still inside. FEMA employees protect each other well, and it’s very sad. That makes us feel like the internal resources available to help don’t matter, because in the end they won’t do anything,” she said.
Carmen said she recently contacted FEMA to learn about the status of her case, but they told her that the timeline established by the agency to respond to these types of complaints has not yet ended. “Meanwhile, the attackers continue to work there. These findings on the delays confirm what I’m experiencing,” she said.
Both regretted that FEMA has lost sight of its duty to serve the people by not responding with greater urgency to cases related to misconduct by some employees and exposing victims to spending more time in bureaucratic procedures.
“Time is wasted in those offices where they’re supposed to help you. That time is paid for with public funds and with our taxes. I spent two and a half hours in the conflict mediation office to get attacked and I didn’t stay any longer because I ended the conversation, but they wanted to continue arguing that day and the following Monday. The mishandling of these matters entails a loss of productivity and money,” Carmen said.
Meanwhile, María said she feels very frustrated in having time and public money invested in these situations, while there may be people in Puerto Rico who have not recovered from the losses they suffered from the 2017 hurricanes.
“FEMA is serving disaster survivors, people who lost everything; whose hopes were in that house or in that business. And this internal absurdity is in the way of people getting fair treatment so they can recover,” he said.
Carmen blasted the audit for not including recommendations to address the victims, because, she said, these “toxic” issues and environments harm their personal and emotional lives.
“If you aren’t that strong, it can harm your productivity at work. I was able to close some chapters, but this situation is ingrained in my system and there’s no way to eradicate it. I have a new job and I’m scared to go. It makes me very anxious, especially because it’s a company that works with the feds and I know that I won’t be protected if something similar happens to me again,” she said.
Since 2018, Rosa, not her real name, has filed several complaints at all FEMA offices that handle misconduct cases, including the DHS-OIG.
“Which FEMA or OIG investigator has sat with me? None. They must listen to the victims for these things. The audit took place, great, there are findings and recommendations, but what are you going to do about the victims? What are the remedies? More needs to be done because my rights have been violated and these guys are at their jobs calling the shots, while I’m in the unemployment line,” Rosa said.
She has filed complaints against two supervisors who, separately, allegedly made sexual advances on her when she worked at the FEMA office in Manatí, a municipality located in northern Puerto Rico. The complaints also included claims of discrimination, misconduct, nepotism, violations of the equal employment policy and even feeling threatened when an employee who had made sexual advances to her claimed to have access to firearms.
“Every time I revisit the situation, it makes me sad, outraged, and brings on a lot of frustration and helplessness. This is corruption. The OIG may have uncovered the mess going on at FEMA, but where are the remedies for the victims and the disciplinary actions against the aggressors,” she reiterated.
Rosa believes the audit does not promote concrete actions, instead “protects” the alleged aggressors.
“It seems unbelievable to me that at this point the OIG has produced an audit with findings focused only on the processes, closing four of the five findings, when FEMA hasn’t acted in favor of the claims, much less of the victims. For me, it’s a real farce and a circus,” she said.
Puerto Rico Coordinator Remains Silent
The Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Puerto Rico, José Baquero Tirado, was not available to comment on the audit findings.
Although the CPI documented complaints in Puerto Rico dating back to 2018, it was not until February 1, 2020, that FEMA assigned the handling and attention of all harassment complaints to the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which it launched agency-wide in 2019.
The agency also mentioned that it has an action plan to improve the work culture that draws up a schedule of activities and training to provide guidance on harassment and discrimination. This plan incorporates the recommendations of the findings of an internal survey conducted by RAND, which FEMA contracted in 2019 after allegations of sexual harassment by a senior executive.
On several occasions, Baquero Tirado has refused requests for an interview with the CPI to learn what local actions, if any, the agency has taken to prevent these situations in Puerto Rico and to find out if it has provided remedies to the victims. The official is limited to sending generic written statements that lack data on this matter.
Through a source, the CPI learned that a few days ago FEMA employees in Puerto Rico received training on sexual misconduct prevention and response strategies. The workshops were given by personnel from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an organization that works in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense on “programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.”
In an email sent to FEMA employees, Baquero Tirado said these workshops are an “important” initiative that has the support of the leaders of Puerto Rico’s recovery process.
“Each component of the RAINN’s sessions will focus on how the issue of sexual misconduct may occur in the JFO [Joint Field Office] community and will provide you skills and strategies to use in your everyday life, this includes both in-person and virtually,” the official said in the email to which the CPI had access.
The CPI has spent more than a year asking FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the breakdown by state and territory of sexual harassment complaints that have been received by its offices of equal civil rights.
FEMA told the CPI that it “doesn’t track complaints this way [by state or territory], so it doesn’t keep such records,” said Brooke Nicholas, senior government information specialist with FEMA’s Information Management Division.
The CPI also asked for the breakdown by state or territory of the 305 cases identified in the DHS-OIG audit. The request must be made through a procedure under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal agency replied. This process, which has already been completed, can take months and even years to address.
If you or someone you know is experiencing gender violence, refer to the following directory of organizations that offer help.
You may also contact the Women’s Ombudsman Office by calling 787-722-2977.
If you are a FEMA employee, you can file your complaints through the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).
Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a member of Report For America.
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