Opinion

At the VA, High Hopes and Expectations for Biden

A month into President Joe Biden’s term, the new administration has moved at a rapid pace to roll back many of the previous administration’s most destructive policies and pushed forward on a number of Biden’s core campaign promises. For federal workers, especially those at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second largest employer in the federal government, the changes couldn’t come soon enough.

Biden has signed executive orders that restored federal workers’ collective bargaining rights, reversed the previous administration’s policy that made it easier to fire federal employees and called on federal agencies to raise their minimum wage for employees to $15 an hour. More still, the administration forced out members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel — a body charged with resolving disputes between agencies and labor unions that arise during collective bargaining negotiations — who were deemed unfit to serve and overwhelmingly anti-union.

Yet, as the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council (AFGE NVAC), which represents 265,000 VA employees nationwide, I can say a lot of work remains to be done.

The most pressing issues facing VA workers are those pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic,  which has already taken the lives of over 120 VA employees and nearly 10,000 veterans. Over the past year, front-line VA workers, who make up the largest integrated health care system in the country, have faced dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment, and have been repeatedly lied to, threatened and exposed to unnecessary risks by VA leadership. Encouragingly, the Biden administration has begun to correct course, putting new standards and requirements in place for federal facilities, including a mask mandate. But employees also desperately need more clarity and greater consistency on VA policies toward testing, hazard pay and remote work.

A long-standing issue employees hope to see the Biden administration address, which has become an even more acute problem during the pandemic, is the VA’s drastic staffing shortfall. Under the Trump administration, then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie ignored a 49,000-person staffing shortage in order to justify efforts to privatize care, despite the fact that all available patient satisfaction surveys have established that veterans prefer VA care to private and for-profit care. Our union believes the Biden administration knows that it was dangerous and callous for the VA to compromise veteran care with short-staffing, and we hope they will make it a priority to fully staff the VA.

Ultimately, many of the key changes that need to happen to strengthen and protect the VA workforce should be codified in a collective bargaining agreement. Members of AFGE NVAC have been fighting for a fair contract for years, demanding safe working conditions and adequate staffing levels, the space and equipment VA workers need to ensure veterans receive the best care possible and mechanisms to protect workers from the whims of management.

We look forward to engaging with the Biden administration to reach a contract that once again makes the VA a workplace that provides dignity, fairness and respect. For now, however, there seems to be a disjunction between what the Biden administration intends to do and what the current leadership at the VA is doing, which remains in line with the changes and directives initiated under the Trump administration.

For all intents and purposes, the current leadership and lead negotiators at the VA are still fighting the previous administration’s  war on workers. Employees are still being denied proper PPE, being fired without due process and have been blocked from accessing their union. Earlier this month, the VA’s lead negotiators on the new collective bargaining agreement presented a proposal that would gut occupational health and safety protections for our workforce despite the ongoing pandemic. On Jan. 29, the VA negotiators proposed to eliminate the “Pandemics” section of our contract during a pandemic. The proposals brought by these negotiators, who were appointed under the previous administration, stand in stark contrast to the tone and direction of the Biden administration.

In his testimony in front of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, President Biden’s nominee for VA secretary, Denis McDonough, signaled that he would be a “partner” to the VA’s workforce. That sentiment is wonderful to hear and we look forward to working in partnership with Mr. McDonough once he is confirmed. But until he overhauls much of the VA’s senior leadership and lead contract negotiators, many of whom are still holdovers from the previous administration, it is clear that VA workers will continue to face an adversarial dynamic.

After years under siege, seeing their rights revoked and their work disrespected, the men and women charged with the important task of caring for our nation’s veterans have high hopes and high expectations for the Biden administration. Because change is long overdue.

 

Alma Lee is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council, which represents 265,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

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