Tactical

Lawmakers push to make it easier to discipline, fire VA workers

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leaders would be able to demote and fire problematic workers more quickly under new accountability rules proposed by a group of lawmakers on Friday.

The move comes in response to federal rulings against previous attempts to streamline disciplinary actions against VA staff, and in response to concerns from department leadership about using already approved authorities for those personnel decisions. Supporters say the move is needed to ensure that poor-performing workers aren’t hurting customer service and staff morale.

“While the VA employs some of the finest men and women, it only takes a few bad employees to disrupt the culture and service at the VA, which negatively impacts veterans,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in a statement announcing the new legislation.

“Veterans are best served when VA leaders have the ability to swiftly take action to remove bad employees in order to maintain a healthy workplace and, more importantly, provide quality services for our veterans.”

The measure — dubbed the Restore Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act — has backing from Moran, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., has introduced companion legislation in his chamber.

“In order to best serve veterans, the VA Secretary must have the authority to quickly and fairly remove, demote, or suspend bad employees who are undermining the quality of services that our veterans have earned,” Bost said in a statement. “As it stands today, the VA secretary’s hands are tied, and failing employees continue to be employed at VA.”

In March, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that he would stop using disciplinary authorities approved by Congress in 2017 because of numerous legal challenges to the measures. Those powers were approved after a push from Republican lawmakers to find ways to more quickly deal with employees accused of malfeasance, ineptness or, in extreme cases, criminal activity.

But McDonough insisted that the 2017 law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies” to settle personnel disputes. Rulings in recent months from the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board have muted much of their effectiveness, he said.

VA officials have insisted since then that other existing authorities allow for proper management and punishment of department staff.

Lawmakers behind Friday’s legislation disagree. The new legislation would make multiple changes to federal employment rules regarding VA workers, including matching disciplinary rules for VA managers and supervisors with the process in place for Senior Executive Service staff and installing new expedited removal, demotion or suspension authority for all categories of VA employees.

The legislation would also get rid of the requirement that supervisors put an employee performance improvement plan in place before any disciplinary action.

The measure already has the backing of a wide range of veterans groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Concerned Veterans of America. However, whether that support will be enough to move the legislation ahead remains unclear.

While Bost can move the measure through his Republican-controlled committee without Democratic support, finding momentum in the Senate is more difficult. Union leaders have voiced concerns about cutting back on employee appeals rights in the past, and are likely to lobby Democratic leaders in the Senate to move carefully on the new suggestions.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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