WASHINGTON – The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union at the Department of Veterans Affairs representing 260,000 employees, is responding to recent accusations from Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie accusing AFGE’s National VA Council of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While COVID-19 cases doubled in the VA in previous weeks and as a VA hospital in Las Vegas had to reverse plans to reopen because of conditions on the ground, Secretary Wilkie apparently found time to divert his attention from pandemic response to pen an anti-union op-ed. There couldn’t be a clearer indication of how twisted his priorities are,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley.
“Instead of doing what needs to be done to protect employees and veterans, Secretary Wilkie continues to make false accusations against one of few entities that actually holds him accountable,” Kelley added. “For decades our union has given a voice to hundreds of thousands of VA employees. We have done this before this pandemic and will continue to do it after, regardless of who calls the shots at the VA.”
Throughout this pandemic, AFGE leaders requested meetings with VA leadership at the national and local levels to discuss the safest way to respond to COVID-19 while protecting veterans and employees. Ultimately, letters from the union to Secretary Wilkie and other VA leaders went unanswered and the VA unilaterally created policies without employee input.
“Secretary Wilkie doesn’t want to ‘work together to fight the pandemic,’ as he claimed. If he did, he would have met with us. Since 1989, our union has met with every VA Secretary, regardless of party. Secretary Wilkie is the only one who has refused to meet with our union,” AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said.
“Throughout the entirety of this pandemic, VA leadership has chosen to mislead the public instead of admit the truth and work together toward solutions. They misled the public repeatedly on whether front-line VA employees had enough PPE – then later admitted the shortages. It’s the same bluster and bad faith the agency has employed at the bargaining table under Wilkie, and it’s doing the public and veterans a disservice,” Lee said.
The contract Secretary Wilkie refers to is the Master Agreement between AFGE and the VA that covers all employees in the bargaining unit. AFGE has come to the table many times, yet the VA has refused to negotiate in good faith, attempting to force draconian measures into the agreement that strip VA workers – about one-third of whom are veterans themselves – of their rights. It also threatens quality care for veterans, and paves the way for a scheme to outsource veterans’ health care. This administration’s proposal also discourages employees from bringing to light issues that hurt their ability to take care of veterans by eliminating whistleblower protections.
“This is the quickest response we’ve seen from Secretary Wilkie regarding anything to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Our letters and meeting requests are still unanswered,” Lee continued. “He claims that ‘VA staff are worthy of the highest praise,’ but President Trump referred to VA employees as ‘sadists’ at his Tulsa rally. Wilkie hasn’t denounced those comments or even addressed them. Until he does, we’ll assume he stands with the president in his assessment of the VA workforce.”