The move from real estate to social work for Germaine Clarno came after the deadliest attack ever on American soil. As citizens entered the military at record numbers after 9/11, Germaine felt she had to do her part to support those who were enlisting to defend our freedoms.
When she first entered the Edward Hines Jr. Medical Center as a mental health social worker in 2009, she knew her work wouldn't be easy. Veterans suffer psychological trauma at higher rates than the general public, including substantially-higher occurrences of post-traumatic stress disorder. What may intimidate many only inspired Clarno, solidifying her determination to do everything she could to make their lives better.
“I heard first hand stories from veterans about their experience in the military, their experience in combat, what it was like to leave their families, knowing that there’s a possibility that they may not see their families again. Hearing these stories, my desire to keep helping veterans intensified.” – Germaine Clarno
But not everyone who worked at Hines shared the same enthusiasm. The deeper she got into her VA career, the more apparent it became that those who speak up about problems with patient care were being ostracized, criticized and by certain managers. There was a dark side to the workplace she loved - a culture steeped in intimidation, retaliation and reprisal - and she knew that someone needed to do something about it.
That someone was her.
Despite the retaliatory behavior by managers, Germaine knew she had to speak up when she discovered that managers at her hospital were keeping secret wait lists and delaying veterans appointment. So in the summer of 2014, she turned to the media. She was scared and knew she was putting her job on the line, but that didn’t matter to her: veterans needed her to be bold, and she did what she knew was right.
"Before I went on the news I was obviously scared to death, knowing what it was going to do."
Dedicated frontline employees, like Germaine, are the foundation of America's promise to our veterans. They are the eyes and ears on the hospital floors, benefit offices, and veterans cemeteries who work directly with veterans each and every day. Through sometimes challenging working conditions, VA workers continue to speak up and speak out on behalf of veterans.
But recent proposals by a group of extreme lawmakers will make it harder for workers like Germaine to do so. Cloaked in the thin disguise of "accountability," bills by Rep. Jeff Miller and Sen. Marco Rubio (H.R. 1994 and S. 1082) would make every VA employee at-will, meaning they can be fired at the drop of a hat with no meaningful appeal rights.
Rather than rooting out the bad apples, this legislation would have the exact opposite effect: giving crooked managers the ability to fire anyone who threatens to expose threats to veterans care.
“It will reduce due process. It lengthens the probationary period which just exposes employees to more retaliation and really makes them at will so that they can be fired at any time. We don’t need an act that’s going to continue to reinforce retaliatory behavior,” explains Germaine. "That's what got the VA into trouble in the first place."
Eliminating the due process rights of thousands of VA employees, many of whom are veterans themselves, will hurt more than just workers, but the veterans they serve. The irony of S. 1082 is that it proclaims to be a solution to accountability deficiencies at the VA, yet it would only lead to more secrecy and less whistle blowers coming forward to improve care. Employees would have to think twice before blowing the whistle knowing that they could be fired at the drop of a hat.
“We need meaningful reform. We need to expand whistleblower protections so that the protections are reflective of the types of retaliation that management has done to the employees. The consequences for those who retaliate against whistleblowers need to be enforced and they need to be strict.” – Germaine Clarno
Fortunately, there is a better way to hold bad actors accountable without discouraging whistleblowers from coming forward. The Department of Veterans Affairs Equitable Employee Accountability Act of 2015 (S. 1856), introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, would strengthen whistleblower protections, improve management performance, secure the safety of veterans and employees, and increase oversight of VA health care through regular reporting to Congress.
Unlike the slash-and-burn, extremist proposals being advocated by Rep. Miller and Sen. Rubio, S. 1856 would protect brave whistleblowers like Germaine and ensure that anyone who threatens veterans care is removed immediately.