The VA Employee Fairness Act of 2021 has passed the House Veterans Affairs Committee and is waiting to be considered by the full House of Representatives. The bill has more than 100 co-sponsors.
If enacted, it would give tens of thousands of VA employees including doctors and nurses full collective bargaining rights to negotiate for better working conditions and make the VA a better place to work.
AFGE is working with House VA Committee Chairman Mark Takano’s office to circulate a sign-on letter to members of Congress that will be sent to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging him to use broad authority to grant more workplace rights to Title 38 employees – Physicians, Dentists, Podiatrists, Optometrists, Chiropractors, Nurses, Nurse Anesthetists, Physician Assistants, and Expanded-Function Dental Auxiliaries (EFDAs). AFGE represents more than 60,000 of these frontline VA healthcare professionals across the country. There are significantly more throughout VA.
Why Title 38 employees need full workplace rights
The VA is a world-class health care provider, but because of this law, it’s hard for the department to recruit and retain Title 38 medical professionals crucial to maintaining such a first-rate institution.
These medical professionals, for example, are not allowed to raise grievances about things like staffing shortages that undermine patient care or in situations where the VA fails to provide promotion and advancement opportunities that will attract health care workers to the VA. They’re also not allowed to challenge management violations of pay laws or the VA’s own policies.
Compared with their counterparts in other federal agencies, state and local government systems and the private sector, VA medical professionals have extremely limited collective bargaining rights. This has resulted in job stress, burnout, and low morale, and the VA’s inability to recruit and retain medical professionals. Chronic understaffing hurts patient safety, workplace safety, and leads to overuse of expensive contract nurses and doctors.
The bill, H.R. 1948, would change that. Specifically, the bill would make the VA a better place to work by giving employees a say in their work and working conditions through collective bargaining. A companion bill, S. 771, has been introduced in the Senate.
Pushing for policy change within the VA
VA Secretary McDonough met with AFGE’s 4th District twice in the past few months. The first meeting was in Baltimore, Md., in April along with AFGE Local 424. The second one was in Hampton, Va., in May along with AFGE Local 2328. At the Hampton VA meeting, they were joined by Senator Mark Warner, Rep. Bobby Scott, and Rep. Elaine Luria.
Full bargaining rights for Title 38 employees was among the issues discussed. AFGE urged the VA secretary to endorse the VA Employee Fairness Act which would codify these rights into law and prevent any future secretary from taking them away.
AFGE District 4 NVP Dan Doyle also asked the secretary to return official time to Title 38 union representatives. In April 2019, then VA Secretary Robert Wilkie prohibited these employees from using official time to represent and defend their coworkers. As a result, Title 38 union reps have been forced to take leave and work off the clock to perform their duties for more than two years.
“If they need to defend an employee in an investigation or meet with Human Resources officials to discuss a complaint of discrimination, they must take leave or forego pay to do so. That is completely unacceptable,” Doyle said in a follow-up letter to the secretary.