More concern over VA accountability act, as VBA flip-flops on performance guidance

The Veterans Benefits Administration is no longer using specific time requirements to guide managers’ decisions about their employees’ progress on performance actions.

VBA rescinded its most recent performance management guidance, effective April 2, which directed managers to approach performance reviews and decisions with “compassion, consistency and common sense” and required employees to meet their performance targets every pay period or month.

Employees who were unsuccessful on one or more of the critical elements in their performance plans have “up to four pay periods (two months) to correct performance deficiencies.” If they fail to meet performance targets during those two months, managers should propose a removal or demotion, the VBA memo said.

That memo, which VBA Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Willie Clark issued back in November 2017, clarified and provided more detail on guidance that came from the Veterans Affairs Central Office last summer.

The updates came after the president signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Act into law in June 2017.

With VBA’s specific performance management guidance rescinded, managers are now reverting back to an August 2017 memo from VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Peter Shelby, which does not include a timeline by which employees are expected to improve their performance.

Instead of placing employees on a 90-day Performance Improvement Plan (PIP),  supervisors can fire or demote an employee if:

  • An employee fails a critical element in his or her performance plan;
  • There’s a “reasonable belief” that an employee’s “performance deficiency is so serious that it cannot be improved;”
  • The deficiency poses a clear danger to the employee or others;
  • The deficiency presents a risk to important services for veterans; or
  • An employee repeatedly fails non-critical elements of his or her performance plan.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 220,000 VA employees, called the decision to revert back to the August guidance “chaotic” in a letter to House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees.

AFGE filed a grievance against the department for its implementation of the accountability act’s performance guidance, which it said breaks with the terms of the contract it signed with VA back in 2011.

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“The situation is rapidly devolving , and with the absence of a secretary of veterans affairs who is committed to protecting employees, it becomes more dire every day,” AFGE National President J. David Cox wrote in a May 3 letter.

Specifically, AFGE wants the House and Senate VA committees to hold hearings on the VA Accountability Act’s implementation.

“We are actively working with the VA to oversee implementation of the accountability law to ensure the department has the best workforce possible,” a spokeswoman for Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told Federal News Radio.

But Senate VA Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is still concerned the department’s use of the accountability act is having an unfair impact on lower-level VA employees, a spokeswoman said. The department has yet to respond to the concerns he raised in February, she added.

“We gave you an accountability bill. … It was done for the very best of reasons, to get rid of the driftwood,” Tester said Wednesday during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing. “But … I have been told this bill is being used to get rid of people for political reasons. Have you been told that? Could you do me a favor and make sure that it’s not being used in that way?”

As Federal News Radio previously reported, VBA employees have said they fear one mistake under the accountability act would cost them their jobs.

Tester was one of six senators who wrote to former VA Secretary David Shulkin back in February to express their concerns with VBA’s performance guidance.

House members are planning a hearing for the summer on the accountability act’s implementation, but no specific date has been set, a committee spokeswoman said.