Senior leaders within the Department of Veterans Affairs have continued to put VA staff and veterans’ lives at risk throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 82 VA employees and more than 5,500 veterans. Currently, more than 11,000 VA employees have tested positive, with dozens of new cases being reported each day.
Instead of listening to VA workers when they raised the alarm about PPE shortages at the start of the pandemic, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and VA officials evicted union representatives from office space as cases spiked and dismissed public reports of problems within the VA only to acknowledge the shortages once internal memos were leaked.
The VA’s mismanagement of the pandemic response – in the form of chronic understaffing, an ongoing lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, an outright refusal to give employees hazard pay, and limited access to telework options – has put front-line workers, their families, and veterans at risk.
“We continue to have an enormous problem with Covid,” said Barb Galle, president of AFGE Local 3669 in Minneapolis during a press call last week. “We have N95 masks being withheld from staff and one 65-year-old nurse being told she had to fill out a safety form in order to receive a mask. We currently have 322 cumulative staff that have tested positive, but the agency won’t listen to our input. We represent front-line staff and our voices should be heard.”
“We have veterans who are positive with Covid and are coming into the facility, but employees don’t have proper plexiglass shields and other protections when interacting with them,” said Gayle Griffin, president of AFGE Local 3 in Milwaukee. “Our employees are being overworked. We have Milwaukee VA nurses and aides who have been forced to work overtime – some have done 17 to 18 hours and are disciplined if they don’t do it. I believe the VA doesn’t want the [Covid] numbers out there. They want to appear to have minimized the spread.”
Staffing crisis, low pay,and repeated attacks on the workforce
The rise in COVID-19 cases amongst VA employees comes amid a years-long assault by the Trump administration on the collective bargaining rights of VA workers nationwide – a third of whom are veterans themselves.
VA policies and practices for PPE distribution, employee leave, staffing, telework, COVID-19 testing, and hazard pay have been unpredictable, inconsistent, and arbitrary. Contrary to the public assurances made by VA Secretary Wilkie and Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Richard Stone, VA medical facilities still do not have adequate PPE, respirators, hand sanitizer, testing, or other medical resources essential for the safe treatment of patients or to control the spread of COVID-19.
For years, AFGE’s National VA Council – which represents 265,000 VA workers nationwide – has sounded the alarm over the staffing crisis at the VA. Members of the AFGE NVAC have also been fighting for a fair contract for years, demanding safe working conditions and adequate staffing levels, the space and equipment VA workers need to ensure veterans receive the best care possible, and mechanisms to protect workers from the whims of management.
At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, the normal staffing ratio at the Richard L. Roudebush VAMC in Indianapolis was one registered nurse (RN) for every two COVID-19 patients. In that same facility, the ratio has tripled to one RN for every six patients as of December.
This is in part the result of a significant number of RNs being on leave because they have either contracted COVID-19 or needed to quarantine after being exposed. As the nation faces a year-end surge, VA leadership must take steps to increase the number of RNs and other essential front-line health care personnel to effectively take care of veterans and protect its workforce. Doing so will allow employees who are normally involved in direct patient care to return to their critical duties.
“At my facility in Baltimore, we are dealing with leadership that is untrustworthy and that keeps the union out of all decisions,” said Regina Smith, president of AFGE Local 424 in Baltimore. “We don’t know how many masks we have, and we don’t know how many employees at our facility have COVID. I see people struggling – they have bills to pay and they risk their lives to take care of these veterans – and they take this virus back into their homes and to their families. The VA has failed to protect these people.”
A number of local VA facilities have reported having difficulties recruiting and retaining workers, because private hospitals pay more. Also, a recent study conducted by AFGE and other unions showed alarming disparities in the amount and type of hazard pay given out in different facilities around the country due to the VA’s failure to implement a nationwide policy concerning hazard pay.
IT infrastructure issues
As the pandemic continues, the VA has failed to adequately expand the use of telehealth and telemental health. The agency also must work to ensure that all employees who are able to telework are permitted to do so. Unfortunately, a number of VA systems were not built to support the number of workers performing their duties from home simultaneously, resulting in daily technical issues.
The VA must invest more money into its technology. Otherwise, employees will continue to work without proper protections, leaving themselves and the veterans they serve vulnerable to COVID-19.
“The IT infrastructure at the VA continues to fail employees,”said Jim Rihel, president of AFGE Local 940 at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Philadelphia. “A lot of the problems we’re facing at the VBA are the increased number of claims due to financial hardship veterans are experiencing because of the pandemic, but employees are failing to meet [performance] standards not because they are bad employees, but because the systems in place are failing them.”