VA insists it’s not using the accountability act to target low-ranking employees

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The Veterans Affairs Department says it’s not using the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act — now just more than one year old — to disproportionately fire lower-ranking employees over senior managers and executives.

VA battled lawmakers on the House Veterans Affairs Committee over this point many times during a hearing on the department’s implementation of the accountability act.

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Employees at GS-1-6 make up 36.8 percent of all disciplinary actions at the department, according to VA’s report on its implementation of the accountability act after the first year. GS-7-10 employees made up 13.9 percent of all actions in the wake of the new accountability act, while GS-10-15 made up 12.2 percent.

Senior executives made up 0.1 percent of all disciplinary actions at VA.

“You don’t see a significant difference from year to year, frankly in any category of unrealistic firings or removals,” said acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke.

Employees in housekeeper, custodian and cafeteria worker positions make up a majority of the VA workforce. Those jobs are high turnover positions, and their removal rates are generally comparable to those who perform similar work in the private sector, said Nathan Maenle, principal deputy assistant secretary for VA’s Office of Human Resources and Administration.

Maenle is leading VA’s HR office on an acting basis, after former director Peter Shelby left the agency last week.

But some committee members see the high removal numbers among low-ranking employees, coupled with high turnover and vacancies in those positions across the department, as a problem.

“From a housekeeper’s vantage point, they’ve seen 46 of their colleagues punished in the last year,” Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) said, citing disciplinary action data at the Pittsburgh VA medical center. “They see 300 of them missing. Their work is additional every single day, and very few, if any, managers have been dismissed at that time.”

Though VA isn’t necessarily firing more employees at low GS ranks today than it has before the accountability act, House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) acknowledged the department’s struggles to recruit and fill those positions that disciplined employees have left open.

“If you’re short of personnel, you don’t fire adequately performing employees,” he said. “You reward those people to stay there. If I were a manager at Pittsburgh and I was having to get rid of somebody and I was already short of personnel, they’d have to do something pretty egregious for me to get rid of them.”

Trust from whistleblowers?

For members on the House VA Committee, the number of firings over the past year isn’t necessarily a point of success.

“We can’t measure success of this law’s implementation against a number of disciplinary actions, but we can measure failure,” Roe said. “If one single man or woman is afraid to come forward to report wrong-doing because of fear of retaliation, to me, that would be a failure.”

A handful of VA whistleblowers had written to the House committee to tell members they’ve experienced retaliation since disclosing their concerns to agency leadership, Roe said.

O’Rourke told the committee that he took whistleblower disclosures seriously. The department has trained 2,000 HR professionals and attorneys, 40,000 supervisors and 690 members of the Senior Executive Service on the accountability act.

VA hasn’t, however, trained rank-and-file employees on procedures for making a whistleblower disclosure, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox told the committee. Employees are also confused about how they can make a disclosure using the VA’s toll-free hotline specifically designed for whistleblower complaints, he added.

AFGE had asked VA for the number so it could provide it to its VA members, but the agency told the union the phone number was available internally, Cox said.

Culture of fear vs. culture of VA accountability

This hearing, for the most part, was devoid of the usual fireworks that past meetings on this topic usually sparked. Democrats — many of whom had supported the accountability act after receiving reassurances that VA would use the new authorities to reverse the agency’s culture of fear — expressed some skepticism that the department was truly creating a new culture.

But O’Rourke said changing VA’s culture would take time.

“We have a lot of times where we don’t work together on problems. We try to work on them either individually or we just try to not think about them too much,” he said. “Breaking down those barriers, whether it’s between IT and [the Veterans Health Administration] or whether it’s between VHA and [the Veterans Benefits Administration], [it’s about] working problems collaboratively with the veteran’s outcome in mind. … That’s what I would change immediately if I could. That involves  personalities. People have been doing things their whole careers.”

Though committee members generally offered mixed reviews of VA’s implementation of the accountability act so far, AFGE has a firm opinion.

“The accountability act has proven to be one of the most misguided and counterproductive VA laws ever enacted,” Cox told the committee.

Lawmakers did, however, become more animated when discussing VA employees’ use of official time.

The department has roughly 470 people who spend all of their work hours on official time.

“I’m telling you, anybody listening to this across this great country is scratching their head[s] about how in the world we can create a culture of accountability when you have policies in place where somebody can spend 100 percent of their time on something on other than what they’re hired to do, and that that’s acceptable? How is that acceptable?” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said.

Arrington’s concerns will likely be addressed, in part, in the coming days.

AFGE said it expects it will hear from VA later this week with more details about how the department will enforce the president’s recent executive orders on official time.