The Department of Veterans Affairs is a world-class health care provider, but because of its outdated policy, and let’s just say, not the best working conditions, it’s hard for the department to recruit and retain medical professionals crucial to maintaining such as a first-rate institution.
The VA has tens of thousands of vacancies, and the push to send veterans out to for-profit hospitals is not the answer to staffing shortages or the best approach to strengthening the institution much loved and preferred by veterans.
But help is on the way!
We are excited to report that a bill has been introduced in the House and the Senate to make it easier for the VA to create a better environment and to improve working conditions so that the agency can attract the best and the brightest and keep them happy.
Specifically, the bill would give employees a say in their work and working conditions through collective bargaining.
Why these medical professionals need a voice at work
While VA employees have had collective bargaining rights since 1991, certain workers don’t. Due to the VA’s narrow interpretation of their collective bargaining rights under the law, Title 38 clinicians, including doctors, physician assistants, dentists, registered nurses, and podiatrists, are not allowed to raise grievances about things like staffing shortages that undermine patient care or to negotiate for competitive pay that will attract health care workers to the VA.
Adequate staffing is even more important during a pandemic like COVID-19, and it’s outrageous these front-line workers can’t even raise the issue if they are short-staffed!
In addition, they’re also not allowed to challenge management violations of pay laws or the VA’s own policies!
But the VA Employee Fairness Act of 2021 would change that by granting these medical professionals their full collective bargaining rights.
AFGE thanks Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), for having the front-line workers’ backs and introducing the bill.
"Thank you Chairman Takano and Senator Brown for standing with the front-line heroes who have risked their lives to care for our nation’s veterans throughout the pandemic," said AFGE President Everett Kelley. "The restrictions placed upon doctors’ and nurses’ union rights have always been unwarranted.”
“Two years ago, the previous administration went further and stripped medical professionals of almost all of their union rights as part of its larger union-busting agenda,” he added. “It is critical that Congress pass the VA Employee Fairness Act to ensure that all VA workers who have elected union representation have a voice in the workplace, regardless of their job title.”
AFGE NVAC President Alma Lee said, “On behalf of over 265,000 employees we represent at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I applaud Chairman Takano and Senator Brown's decisions to re-introduce the VA Employee Fairness Act in the House and Senate. If leaders in Congress truly want to protect front-line healthcare workers and our nation's Veterans as they say they do, then they will vote to pass this bill."
"This pandemic has shed light on the importance of workers having a voice on the job. Politicians across the aisle have a duty to protect our federal workforce, strengthen their collective bargaining rights, and partner with federal sector unions. I look forward to working with members of the House and Senate to get this done," she added.
The introduction of the VA Employees Fairness Act in the House comes at a time when VA employees and facilities across the country have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Trump administration, the VA developed a track record of ignoring worker concerns and putting veterans’ lives at risk.
The importance of having a voice at work and a fair contract is a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 135 VA employees and over 10,500 veterans.
Currently, the VA has recorded more than 228,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and nearly 18,000 VA employees have contracted the virus.