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(WASHINGTON) – The American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE, today applauded House VA Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA)), who introduced legislation, H.R. 5543, to clarify the right of Veterans Affairs health care professionals to grieve and negotiate over compensation matters.
“VA health care professionals are committed men and women, who have chosen to dedicate their careers serving those who’ve sacrificed for our nation,” said J. David Cox, AFGE national secretary-treasurer and a former VA nurse for over 23 years. “They deserve the ability to seek redress when pay laws and regulations are not followed, just like their counterparts in other federally-run medical facilities.
In 1991, Congress expressed its clear intent to provide equal bargaining rights to Title 38 health care professionals by adding Section 7422 to Title 38. The Bush administration severely weakened those rights through an overly broad interpretation of three exclusions to the law. This overly broad interpretation has continued under the Obama administration.
Under current law, VA health care professionals classified as Title 38 employees, do not have the same rights as their counterparts in the Department of Defense or Bureau of Prisons to use their bargaining rights to enforce pay laws and regulations. The current law hampers VA doctors, dentists, registered nurses, physicians’ assistants, chiropractors, optometrists, podiatrists, and dental auxiliaries from exercising their collective bargaining rights when management withholds overtime or weekend premium pay, or wage survey data in violation of pay rules.
“The legislation is critical to addressing a systemic problem affecting morale among VA health care professionals,” said Cox. “The administration of the VA frequently requires employees to work mandatory overtime or uses its discretion to invoke unnecessary emergencies without equitably compensating employees.” VA managers typically use “emergencies and mandatory overtime” compensate for limited staff without compensating employees for their work. These extreme acts have resulted in an explosion of grievances filed on behalf of employees.
In addition to providing equity between Title 38 VA health care professionals and their counterparts in other agencies, the legislation will level the playing field for Title 38 and Title 5 employees in the same agency. Without passage of this legislation, VA employees working side by side lack equal rights. For example, registered nurses cannot enforce their rights to overtime pay while licensed practical nurses have that right. Likewise, VA psychiatrists have no recourse when pay rules are violated, yet VA psychologists working in the same mental health settings have full recourse under Title 5.
The bill could also have benefits with respect to the VA’s ability to recruit and retain quality talent. “In the fierce marketplace for top talent, the VA must be able to compete with the lure of the private sector, where pay and benefits far exceed those in the federal government” said Cox. “If employees cannot force the VA to comply with the pay laws and regulations that are in place, the VA will continue to lose valuable personnel to other health care employers.”
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced similar legislation in the Senate.