Failed Priorities: Congress Focuses on Firing VA Workers While 49,000 VA Jobs Sit Vacant

Categories: VA, Veterans, The Insider

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest health care system in the country, serving nine million veterans every year. The VA’s world-class integrated health care system with a massive network of researchers is veterans’ top choice for care and has constantly outperformed for-profit hospitals in the private sector. 

The VA’s success is due in no small part to its outstanding workforce; one in three are veterans themselves. These employees have the right skills for the work and truly care for our country’s veterans. 

But as more veterans are returning from wars and transitioning into the VA system, the VA is struggling to fill up to 49,000 vacancies needed to take care of them. Doctor, nurse, physical therapist, physician assistant, and psychologist are the top five staffing shortage occupations at the VA. A main reason the VA is having difficulty recruiting qualified individuals? Politicians’ years of anti-government rhetoric and cuts to employee pay and benefits.  

But instead of making it easier for people to come work for the VA, a group of lawmakers is doubling down on making it easier to force people out.  

A new piece of legislation that’s gaining momentum in Congress would make it easier to fire good employees as well as the bad ones. The controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey is a chilling reminder of why we need to protect the integrity of the civil service and the merit systems - so a bad boss doesn't dismiss their employees for speaking out. 

“The VA can and should terminate people whose conduct or performance justifies termination,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. testified before Congress May 17. “But it is absolutely not necessary to destroy the foundation of the civil service in order to allow them to do so.”  

How Rubio’s scapegoat bill is going to allow good employees to be fired: 

If you’re accused of a wrong doing, don’t you expect to be able to defend yourself? You do, right? Nobody should be allowed to accuse or penalize you with little or no evidence.   

But Rubio’s bill, S. 1094, would do just that. Specifically, it would allow VA managers to fire people with little evidence by lowering the evidence standard they’re required to justify the action. With this new standard, even if the majority of evidence supports the accused, he/she will lose. It stacks the deck in favor of bad managers and puts good employees at risk.  

The bill, which currently has nine original co-sponsors, would also prohibit the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) from reducing managers’ proposed penalty for misconduct.  

Under the current law, MSPB judges can lower a proposed penalty if the facts of the case warrant it. Under the Rubio bill, the penalty doesn’t need to reflect the charge. The basic principle of justice that the punishment must fit the offense will no longer apply. 

The bill would also impose an unworkably short time frame on the grievance process that employees rely on to defend themselves against unfair charges. Negotiated contracts between the agency and the union would be overruled by the bill, a major threat to justice and the right of employees to a fair judgment.  

AFGE supports the current system because it provides protections for good employees against bad bosses, especially bad political appointees who seek to improperly punish civil servants. The Rubio bill would encourage a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation. It would hurt veterans as the VA is successful because of its employees.  

The reckless “you’re fired” style of management may be good for TV, but it’s bad for the VA and veterans. 

Managers already have authority to fire bad employees. They’re just not willing to put forward the effort to do it. 

Federal managers, including those at the VA, do not lack adequate authority or tools to discipline those who engage in misconduct or who are poor performers.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), MSPB, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have all issued reports and analyses that have come to the same conclusion:  When poor performers are not dealt with it is not because the civil service laws or procedures are too difficult to utilize. It is because managers do not want to put forward the effort to properly document poor performance so that they can remove or demote these people. 

A recent GAO report, “Improved Supervision and Better Use of Probationary Periods Are Needed to Address Substandard Employee Performance,” (GAO-151-191), February 6, 2015, found four main reasons why agencies do not use the already substantial tools they have available to them to remove poor performers.  All four reasons related to management failures and/or unwillingness to properly identify and document poor performance.   

The VA is still the best health care system for veterans. 

The Veterans Health Administration provides care to nine veterans at 168 hospitals and 1,053 outpatient clinics. Any organizations this large are not immune to troubles. The VA may not be perfect, but it is better than any other healthcare system at serving veterans.  The VA makes no money off veterans. Yet every important indicator of quality of care strongly confirms that the VA is a success.  

Politicians continue to exploit the Phoenix waitlist scandal, but that was not an issue of quality of care.  It was an issue of a lack of resources, combined with a performance bonus system for executives that incentivized lying and cheating.  

“It is absolutely unconscionable that from those facts has come the deplorable legislation before you today that undermines the foundation of the civil service,” Cox said.  

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