Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on Thursday introduced a very bad bill. In response to scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, instead of trying to make things better, he’s making it worse by making it much easier for VA management to fire courageous front-line employees who risk their jobs to report mismanagement.
Here’s how it works. Under his bill, if your supervisor thinks you should be fired, you have seven days to appeal your removal or demotion to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The MSPB then assigns your appeal to an administrative judge, who has 45 days to issue a decision. The judge’s decision is final. During that 45 day period, you won’t receive any pay, benefits, allowances, differentials, or student loan repayments. And if the judge can’t issue his or her decision within 45 days, your removal is final.
This limited right to appeal was first applied to VA Senior Executive Service personnel, but now Rep. Miller wants to immediately eliminate all compensation of lower wage employees who are fighting to save their jobs in the face of rampant management retaliation and intimidation.
“This bill strips virtually all job protections from the very front-line employees who Chairman Miller has invited to testify at his numerous whistleblower hearings,” said AFGE Legislative Director Beth Moten. “It would allow nearly “at will” dismissals of scheduling clerks, pharmacists and other health care professionals and support personnel on the front lines of VA health care every day who testified before Rep. Miller and other committees on behalf of veterans using the VA.”
The only protection a brave whistleblower would get is for the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to give a second review to the VA Secretary’s unfettered discretion to fire or demote. OSC is facing a deluge of pending VA cases and should not be burdened with additional work, especially a new function like reviewing proposed terminations. That is not OSC’s function now. OSC needs more resources, NOT more unnecessary work especially doing something not currently part of its mission.
The bill would also lengthen probationary periods for new hires to 18 months, and the employee’s direct supervisor would have unfettered discretion to extend that probationary period. This runs directly counter to the need to protect probationary employees like the Tomah WI pharmacist Noelle Johnson who spoke up against dangerous prescribing practices and lost her job because she had no appeal rights. Managers intent on retaliation and harassment already exploit probationary status. Rep. Miller’s bill would make it even easier to do so.
Rep. Miller is also taking a shot at labor unions representing VA employees. Under his bill, the Government Accountability Office would conduct a study on the “amount of time spent by Department of Veterans Affairs employees carrying out organizing activities relating to labor organizations and the amount of space in department facilities used for such activities.” Rep. Miller proposed that the study include a cost-benefit analysis of the use of such time and space for such activities.
AFGE condemns this horrific VA anti-accountability act of 2015.