The Department of Veterans Affairs has ordered a temporary stop to involuntary employee downgrades to lower-paying jobs, acknowledging that the VA has incorrectly classified some positions and failed to act in a timely manner when the changes were successfully appealed.
The action was welcomed by the American Federation of Government Employees, which has waged a campaign against the downgrades, complaining that they target low-wage employees who provide support services within the VA health care system.
“We’ve been fighting these downgrades for several years and we are finally starting to see results,” Alma Lee, president of the AFGE’s National Veterans’ Affairs Council, said in a statement Tuesday.
A memo issued June 29 by Tonya M. Deanes, the VA’s deputy chief human capital officer, states that “effective immediately, Human Resources Officers (HROs) are to cease processing involuntary change to lower grade actions related to classification correction issues.”
The memo acknowledges problems with “incorrect classifications and failure to act on Office of Personnel Management (OPM) classification appeal decisions in a timely manner.”
The VA has established a classification oversight working group to develop an action plan addressing classification issues throughout the department.
“VA respects AFGE and shares their commitment to federal workers,” department spokesman Josh Taylor said Tuesday. “Over the past year, VA has worked closely with AFGE leadership on this matter and will continue to do so.”
The AFGE held a rally June 13 outside VA headquarters in Washington with department employees and union activists protesting the downgrades. Among the speakers was Marlon Askew, a retired Army sergeant who served during the first Gulf War and now works as a VA telephone operator in Temple, Tex.
“If I won the lottery tomorrow,” Askew told Post Federal Diary columnist Joe Davidson, “I would still choose to work at the VA and continue to serve those who have served our country.”
According to the AFGE, the downgrades have included positions such as patient support assistants, medical record clerks and transportation assistants. The majority of effected employees are veterans, women and minorities, the union said.
“We’ve known from the very beginning that these downgrades are a complete disservice to our public servants and our nation’s veterans,” said AFGE National President John Gage. “The bullying of the lowest wage earners under the pretense of saving a few dollars must end. It has severely harmed the agency’s morale and impeded patient care.”