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President Trump’s claims about VA firings

President Trump told House Republicans that his administration has fired 7,600 Veterans Affairs employees on Sept. 12. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Together, we enacted the VA Accountability Act, so that anyone who mistreats or abuses our great veterans can be promptly fired. There was a time you couldn’t fire anyone, no matter how they treated our veterans, whether they stole or they were sadists. And we had some of them, too. You couldn’t fire them, and now we can do it very, very quickly and easily. They don’t treat our veterans well. We get them out. Since then, we’ve removed more than 7,600 employees who failed to give our vets the care they so richly deserve.”

— President Trump, in remarks to the House GOP conference retreat, Sept. 12, 2019

The president regularly touts his signing of the bipartisan Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act in June 2017, but he often overstates its impact.

In Trump’s telling, such as in his recent remarks to House Republicans, before the law there was no way for the agency to fire underperforming workers. That’s simply wrong. Government records show that hundreds of Veterans Affairs employees were fired every month before the law was enacted. In 2014, Congress passed a law that was said to make it easier to remove senior officials because of poor performance or misconduct.

Moreover, we were struck by a figure that has popped up in Trump’s rhetoric in recent weeks — that the administration has removed “more than 7,600 employees” as a result of the law. How credible is that number?

The Facts

The publicly available data is limited and somewhat contradictory. We dug into a database called “FedScope” maintained by the Office of Personnel Management (warning: it really only works with Firefox), but the Veterans Affairs data goes only through the end of June 2018. So that gives us just one year of data after passage of the act. (We searched for terminations or removal for discipline/performance of permanent workers.)

The Department of Veterans Affairs used to post monthly and annual reports on actions taken under the law, but those were removed this year as the result of a grievance filed by the American Federation of Government Employees. The union argued that too much personal data was released, making it easy to identify who was fired. (We did find the 2017 annual report still floating around on the Web but will not include a link to it.)

According to our parsing of the OPM data, there was an uptick in firings after the law was enacted. In the 12 months before the law, 2,619 VA employees were fired, compared with 3,473 in the 12 months after the law. At a pace of 290 employees a month, in theory that would get you to 7,600 by the end of August.

But the baseline before the law was enacted was 220 people a month. That’s much different from Trump’s claim that “you couldn’t fire them.”

The numbers are smaller in a report submitted by VA to the veterans committees of the House and the Senate. This report says 1,632 employees were fired between June 23, 2017, and May 31, 2018, compared with 1,063 in the 12 months before the law.

Those numbers suggest that VA would have really needed to step up the pace of firings to reach 7,600 by the end of August, as the first-year pace of 150 employees a month gets you only to 4,000.

For context, VA employed about 392,000 people as of September 2018, according to the OPM. That means, under either of these metrics, fewer than 1 percent are fired each year.

So imagine our surprise when Christina Mandreucci, the VA press secretary, sent us this statement: “Since June 23, 2017, when President Trump signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act into law, VA has fired 8,630 people.”

That would suggest an additional 7,000 people were fired since May 31, 2018, or almost 500 people a month. She said the number was calculated via HR*SMART, the official record for VA human resources transactions. It’s unclear if this data set is comparable to the report to Congress or what we found via OPM’s FedScope database.

Assuming this number is correct, compared with the report to Congress that amounts to a pace of 5,500 people a year, or almost 1.5 percent of the entire workforce.

The VA Accountability Act was supposed to make it easier to fire higher-level officials, but it also shortened the removal process for all employees. In the 12 months after enactment, only three people in the senior executive service were terminated, according to our count. (The report to Congress also says only three members of the senior executive service were fired.)

The 2017 annual report suggests that many of those fired were in relatively low-level positions. We counted 227 housekeeping aides, 166 nursing assistants and 114 food service workers who were removed, demoted or suspended more than 14 days, as well as 22 laundry workers and nine cemetery caretakers. We identified 90 people with “supervisor” or “supervisory” in their title, though many were demoted or suspended, not fired.

The trend appears to have continued in 2018.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in 2018 congressional testimony that less than 1 percent of those fired were supervisors. “Housekeeping aides were the largest number fired, followed by nursing assistants, registered nurses, food service workers and medical support assistants,” he said. “In contrast, supervisors (across the entire Department) ranked in 19th place.” As he put it, “Extremely few managers were being held accountable under a law that was justified largely as a management accountability tool.”

He suggested that many of those targeted for firing were disabled veterans, because many of the affected positions, such as housekeeping aides or cemetery caretakers, are historically set aside for disabled veterans. “A disabled veteran with a chronic condition requested a reasonable accommodation for telework to accommodate his condition,” he said. “The accommodation would have obviated the alleged conduct. The Agency never responded to his request, then issued a proposed removal.”

According to the report to Congress, 22 percent of those fired were being paid under the “WG” scale, which are blue-collar jobs. An additional 36 percent were GS 1-6 ($19,000 to $43,000 in annual pay), 14 percent were GS 7-10 ($36,000 to $64,000), and 14 percent were GS 11-15 ($54,000 to $139,000).

“Culture spans the entire organization,” Mandreucci said. “As with any government agency or business, VA has more rank-and-file workers than senior leaders, and we hold them accountable when warranted, regardless of rank or position.”

The Pinocchio Test

Depending on how you do the math, it might be possible to tally the termination of 7,600 VA employees. VA says that Trump is actually lowballing the figure and it’s really more than 8,600. That’s a huge jump from the available public data.

The biggest problem with these numbers is that Trump ignores the fact that hundreds of VA employees every month already were being fired before the law was passed; in fact, he falsely suggests that firings were not possible before, even if employees “stole or were sadists.” On top of that, the available data suggests the law is mainly being used to target low-level employees, not necessarily senior officials said to avoid accountability.

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