Congressional efforts to significantly cut workplace protections for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees — with clear implications for the rest of the federal workforce — are moving apace even as the largest federal union mounts a vigorous attack on the legislation.
At the same time, the Obama administration is telling agency heads to rein in the use of paid administrative leave that at times has left non-working employees on the payroll for months.
These events signal a sense among Republicans and Democrats that procedures to punish wayward feds either are not strict enough or are not strictly enforced. Legislation and a memo from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also indicate a growing belief on Capitol Hill, within the administration and among good government types that the civil service system needs reform.
Last week’s memo from OPM Director Katherine Archuleta included a fact sheet on paid administrative leave that said “supervisors often place employees on administrative leave rather than utilizing other options that may be more appropriate.”
Currently, most of the action is centered on the VA because of the scandal over the cover-up of long wait times that erupted last year. One response to that was a law that allowed VA senior executives to be fired with very little ability to appeal.
Now, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) wants a similar law for all VA employees, even those not involved in the scandal or with little connection to patient care. As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, he continues to lead a relentless probe into the department and deserves credit for setting the stage for significant improvements the new leadership there is attempting to implement. But his approach to personnel management would significantly undercut due process rights that have kept the VA’s civil service civil instead of political.
“H.R. 1994 would provide the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs with yet another tool to remove any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct,” he told an economic opportunity subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “This provision is simply an extension of this same authority that was provided to the secretary last summer in the Choice Act to remove senior executives.”
He said it as if that were a good thing.
Although Miller has conducted his probe in an admirably bipartisan manner that others in his party should emulate, only two Democrats are listed among his bill’s 47 cosponsors. By weakening workplace protections, however, his bill would increase the possibility of political influence where it does not belong. The VA is a test tube for civil service reform. If due process cuts work there, you can be sure some in Congress will seek to impose them elsewhere.
H.R. 1994, the VA Accountability Act of 2015, would truncate due process by allowing VA staffers only seven days to appeal after being fired or demoted. Feds generally have 30 days. A Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) administrative judge would have 45 days to rule on an appeal, less than half the normal time. If no ruling were made in that time, the department’s action would be final. A judge’s decision could not be appealed to the full MSPB, a presidentially appointed board, denying an avenue available to other feds. Taking the MSPB out of the process raises a constitutional issue that is now being pressed in a case involving the former director of the Phoenix VA, a fired senior executive.
Fortunately, Miller said the rush to judgement would not apply to whistleblowers who had filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.
Christopher Neiweem, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, supports Miller’s bill, saying “the process of personnel action should not languish in a sea of bureaucracy as it has been.” But the VA opposes the due process provisions. Curtis L. Coy, a VA deputy undersecretary, said they could “result in unintended consequences for VA, such as a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector.”
Union leaders were relatively quiet when senior executives were the target last year. That’s changed now that rights are endangered for even the lowest paid VA worker.
“H.R. 1994 in its current form is dangerous because it destroys the civil service protections of the very non-management employees who can hold management accountable to uphold the interests of veterans,” said David Borer, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). It represents most VA staffers. He said the bill would hit “disabled veterans who clean operating rooms, police emergency rooms, maintain VA cemeteries and rate disability claims, and their coworkers who are PTSD therapists, surgeons, bedside nurses, electronic health record technicians, among so many other essential positions. Stripping job protections from nonmanagement employees will result in more mismanagement in the form of retaliation, discrimination, patronage and anti-veteran animus. And veterans’ health care will suffer, along with the employees who have pledged their careers to care for veterans.”
If the bill is not significantly amended, Borer promised “AFGE will work to defeat the bill.”
Had labor leaders taken that approach last year when only senior executives were the target, the union might not have to work so hard now.