(WASHINGTON) – Today, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved legislation clarifying the right of VA health care professionals to grieve and negotiate over some compensation disputes. The committee’s vote was cheered by the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE, which represents over 200,000 VA employees, most of whom work in the Veterans Healthcare Administration, VHA.
The union applauded Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who introduced the language as an amendment at the August 5th mark up of the Senate VA Committee. Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Arlen Specter (D-PA), Roland Burris (D-IL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Jim Webb, (D-VA), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), signed on to the legislation as cosponsors.
“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.”
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 or does not properly implement performance pay systems enacted by Congress.
Senator Brown’s amendment will allow unions representing Title 38 VA employees to negotiate over some compensation matters, similar to the bargaining rights of Title 5 VA and DoD clinicians. Contrary to some claims put forth by the agency, however, the amendment does not give employees the right to bargain over basic rates of pay, which are set by Congress.
“This bill is not and will never be about interfering with Congress’ right to set federal pay,” said Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s National VA Council. “It is entirely about allowing VA healthcare professionals to exercise their congressionally mandated rights to bargain over other types of compensation.”
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 the ability to exercise their collective bargaining rights 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 Local VA human resources personnel will continue to abuse ambiguity in the law, undermining the VA’s ability to be a competitive employer,” said Lee.
The legislation will now be sent to the full Senate for a vote. Companion legislation HR 5543 was previously introduced in the House VA Committee by Chairman Bob Filner, (D-CA). The House VA Committee plans to hold a hearing on the legislation following the summer recess.