AFGE Members Rally to Oppose Job Downgrades

By Matthew Wettengel - Tough times can be measured in more ways than unemployment numbers. For some employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, keeping their jobs isn’t the issue. Reclassifications of job descriptions means they will earn less at their current jobs.

Washington, D.C. - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - A sea of red shirts, chants and drumming filled Lafayette Park on Wednesday, across the street from the White House, as union members called for the end of downgrades to support staff at the VA.

The rally drew a crowd of more than 500 people, some of whom were bused in from across the nation to voice their disapproval of the downgrading of employees who provide essential support services to veterans.

As government employees, the VA staff cannot file grievances for the downgrades, which the American Federation of Government Employees union members believe to be illegal because they are determined by the VA without any oversight.

“We have to raise awareness; we can’t grieve it and we’ve tried to talk to VA about these issues and we’ve talked some, but nothing has happened,” Alma Lee, AFGE National VA Council president, said. “The downgrades continue, and we feel like we have to make people aware of what’s happening to veterans out there and the system is broken and needs to be fixed.”

VA jobs protest

A statement released by the VA said that the department has adhered to standards set by the Office of Personnel Management. The statement said the two agencies have worked together to update the job classification process so that position descriptions “better reflect the duties they perform.”

This process will standardize positions in all VA facilities nationwide to avoid “inconsistencies in grade levels of position descriptions for some employees performing similar work,” Jo Schuda, VA spokeswoman, said.

For some, this will mean reduced salaries and retirement benefits and fewer chances to advance in the VA.

Melissa Miklos, AFGE union president from Beckley, W.Va., brought 43 of her union’s members to the rally after recently learning that a number of VA employees in their union will be downgraded.

“We have, at our facility, in the last two weeks, been notified of around 35 employees that are in line to be downgraded and the downgrades are tremendous in effect,” Miklos said. Some employees may lose up to $20,000 per year in pay.

In general, people who are downgraded have two years before grade and pay retentions take effect, which allows employees to “make some moves or get into a job at another grade level,” Schuda said.

Miklos said the changes affect more than the employees themselves. Care for veterans could suffer, she said.

Ensuring that veterans have access to high-quality care is the top priority of the VA, Schuda said.

Several relatives attended the rally with Miklos, including her infant granddaughter. She said that having younger members of her family present was important because this is something that will eventually affect their lives.

“If we can’t preserve quality jobs with fair pay today, they won’t have a future tomorrow,” Miklos said.

Joel Gustave, third vice president of the AFGE Local 17 in Washington, said protesters understand that the government is in financial trouble, but VA employees shouldn’t be the only ones experiencing downgrades.

“We’re saying ‘Let’s make justice, let it be fair, let it be progressive,’ but let’s get everyone sitting at the table and say, ‘OK, we’re going to share that burden at all levels,’” Gustave said.

He cited large salary differences between support staff members and those in management positions as an example of why employees believe the VA is treating those lower in the organization unfairly.

At the end of the rally, one message was clear: VA employees will continue their efforts to put an end to what they say are arbitrary downgrades.

“The rally doesn’t stop here,” Miklos said. “We are meeting with our senators and congressmen, and we even have events going on at our home locations and we will continue pursuing this until we get a moratorium.”

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