Several months into his job as Veterans Affairs Secretary, Robert McDonald visited the subbasement in the agency’s main Washington office to meet with the leaders of the workers’ union.
Bill Preston, president of AFGE Local 17, which represents VA employees who work in the D.C. central office, told McDonald that if he wanted to achieve his objective of turning around the embattled agency, he would have to fire a lot of executives and managers.
“ ‘Bill, I agree,’ ” Preston recalled McDonald saying that October afternoon. “ ‘I need your help. Tell me who those managers are.’ ”
After a several-month internal review, Preston sent McDonald a 39-page report Thursday, detailing accounts from hundreds of VA workers of dysfunction and insensitivity by their superiors.
If the report were a “perverse ‘how-to’ book,” Preston wrote in an e-mail to McDonald, it would be a “guide to terrible management for the purpose of systematically destroying the ability of the United States government to function effectively.”
Preston declined to give a copy of the report to The Washington Post. He said he wanted to give McDonald time to read it and respond first.
But two union sources broadly described its contents. Nearly three dozen managers were mentioned in it, and each was the subject of at least three separate employee complaints, said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the union. They said the report alleges that there are institutional problems with how employees, many of them veterans, are treated when dealing with a range of personal or professional issues.
“Morale is very low,” one of them said. “It creates a very hostile work environment. People can’t do their work.”
VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon would not say whether McDonald had received the report. She said he and the deputy secretary have held about 60 employee town hall meetings and more than 30 meetings with union leaders.
Next week marks one year since McDonald became secretary. His critics say he has not done enough to clean house. Since June of last year, six senior executive employees were designated for firing over issues such as patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays and patient deaths, according to a July 16 VA report on employment actions given to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Three of the executives left on their own, and three were fired, according to the report. Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA hospital, which was at the center of the scandal over manipulation of wait times for appointments at VA health facilities, was fired for accepting inappropriate gifts such as Beyoncé concert tickets and a trip to Disneyland.
Of the more than 300,000 VA employees across the country, 1,755 have been fired since McDonald became secretary, Dillon said. Many of them were probationary terminations.
Local 17 leaders said they were unaware of any senior executives in the VA central office who have been removed under McDonald.
In December, they said they gave the secretary a “loss of confidence statement” about two managers whose “demoralizing work environment” they described as particularly egregious. Five months later, the leaders recalled, a human resources official told them that it was not a priority and that an investigation into the complaint had not started.
“That is more than frustrating,” Preston said. “It is outrageous.”
When McDonald visited their offices last fall, Preston said he felt hopeful that the new secretary would help change the culture at an agency that consistently is ranked among the worst places to work in the federal government.
Days after that meeting, Preston sent all union employees an e-mail with the subject line: “Local 17 is working with Bob.” It was in that message that Preston asked them to share stories about any supervisors “whose dysfunctional approaches to management make your environment and lives here at work miserable.”
“We have an ongoing working relationship with Bob,” Preston wrote. “This is the opposite of his predecessor.”
There has been minimal interaction between the union and the secretary since then, Preston said. He has requested a meeting to discuss the report.