Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald received a rock star welcome as he addressed a packed house at the AFGE National VA Council’s meeting early Sunday morning. The Council meeting is part of AFGE’s annual Legislative Conference being held here in Washington, D.C. Feb. 8-11. Secretary McDonald's appearance this weekend was the first time a VA Secretary has spoken at a VA Council meeting at the legislative conference.
Addressing the activists who represent employees from VA facilities across the country, Secretary McDonald energized the crowd with his own enthusiasm to move the VA forward with employees as the main engine and most important asset.
“You have no hope to delight veterans if you don’t delight your employees,” he said, drawing loud applause from the audience. “We simply cannot be the kind of VA we want to be without your help. That’s why I’m here.”
The Secretary’s view on many issues that affect employees is a breath of fresh air and received either loud applause or a standing ovation throughout the speech. For example, he called mandatory overtime “a prescription for disaster” and plans to get rid of it. The VA, he said, needs to hire more people. The department is currently in hiring mode and proposed to add 11,600 more full-time employees in its 2016 budget.
As for the hot issue of downgrading employees, the Secretary is not in favor of it. He said employees who take care of veterans “need to be exalted, not downgraded.” He invited AFGE to help the VA and the Office of Personnel Management update position descriptions which have not changed in decades even though the job employees do has evolved. He has directed managers not to downgrade employees and asked that the union notify the VA of any employees who have been downgraded.
The Secretary also discussed the plan to reorganize the department into five regions. In his view, there is too much middle management and too many metrics. He assured employees that he has zero tolerance for retaliation and that he welcomes ideas and feedback from employees. He’s also a supporter of labor-management forums.
Prior to Secretary McDonald's address, Alma Lee, president of the AFGE National VA Council, told the attendees that the atmosphere of fear and retaliation at the VA must end if the agency is to provide the best service to veterans.
"Retention, not retaliation," she said.
President Lee also discussed the Council’s legislative agenda with the activists, giving them ammunition and inspiration before they visit with their members of Congress later on this week.