Nurses Week: What VA Nurses Need to See from the Biden Administration

The scene at the Las Vegas Veterans Administration Medical Center a year ago this month will forever remain seared in my mind. Exhausted, understaffed and worried about the health of everyone around us, shortages of personal protective equipment forced nurses to wear disposable masks intended for single use for multiple days in a row while caring for veterans with COVID symptoms.

I’m the president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union that represents nurses at the VA. I take great pride in my work protecting our nurses on the front lines and getting them the tools they need, and I felt completely helpless.

Nurses Week is a celebration of the men and women who care for our communities, and this year it is a moment for solemn remembrance of those who lost their lives carrying out their duties during the pandemic. It’s also an important time to think about how we can do better by nurses moving forward. Clapping is a welcome gesture, but policy changes are more important.

In the early days of the pandemic, VA nurses went to work facing dangerous shortages of PPE, caring for more patients than we could handle. When we were exposed to COVID and got sick, we were initially denied paid leave, and often denied leave altogether depending on the manager.

VA management wouldn’t tell us when one of our patients or coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, and refused to test the full patient population, limiting our ability to protect ourselves and our veteran patients.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, VA management cut the emergency preparedness training we typically receive. I remember seeing the fear in the eyes of the nurses I represent as they were pulled from their normal jobs in outpatient clinics and sent to the COVID intensive care floor. They were afraid they would lose their licenses – or worse, hurt a patient. We were all terrified, but banded together and rose to occasion.

Under former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s leadership, VA management lied about the VA’s PPE, publicly ignoring nurses’ concerns and claiming the VA had enough PPE for staff while privately acknowledging the department had only provided one mask to employees each week. When the shortages were finally exposed, VA management purchased and distributed counterfeit PPE to VA medical centers, triggering an investigation by the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General. The investigation ultimately resulted in a recall of the faulty equipment that further delayed getting nurses the protective equipment we needed to keep us and our patients safe.

Despite these problems, the Trump administration rushed to reopen before ensuring we had enough staffing and COVID tests to handle the influx of more patients, further endangering nurses and the veterans in our care.

I wish I could say the problems started and ended with the Trump administration’s handling of COVID. But VA employees have been fighting for a fair contract for years, demanding safe working conditions and adequate staffing levels, the space and equipment we need to ensure veterans receive the best care possible and mechanisms to protect workers from the whims of management. The importance of a fair contract became a matter of life and death during the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 130 VA employees and nearly 11,000 veterans.

Under the current contract, when we try to raise concerns about our safety and our patients’ safety, we are ignored at best and face retaliation at worst. Management’s decisions about nurses’ pay are arbitrary and inconsistent. For example, management initially refused to give us COVID hazard pay, and then started providing some nurses a “COVID bonus,” but not others who were in the trenches on the same COVID floor.

Nurses are the ones most frequently delivering direct care to veterans. Yet our collective bargaining rights, which allow us to advocate for ourselves and our patients, have been disregarded for years. This inhibits our ability to address the problems outlined above, as well as the racial discrimination many of us face at work.

The Biden administration has started to turn the page. The decision to reverse the Trump-era executive orders that gutted our collective bargaining rights is a step in the right direction, as is the VA’s decision to honor the terms of our 2011 agreement and restore official time for union activities. But Title-38 employees at the VA, which include medical personnel like nurses, still lack official time, and all VA employees need a new contract that addresses many of the issues raised above.

The mission of the VA is to serve and honor veterans. Too often has VA management forgotten that over 36 percent of VA employees, including nurses, are veterans too. We are caretakers. The ears and voices of the patients we serve. The Biden administration has taken some important first steps to restore respect and dignity to VA nurses. I hope these actions signal that the tides are changing for good because there is much more work to do to repair the damage that has been done and rebuild a VA that honors the sacrifices of its nurses.


Linda Ward-Smith is president of AFGE NVAC Local 1224, representing nurses at the Las Vegas VA Medical Center

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