VA Exempts Roughly 100 Job Titles From Hiring Freeze, Leaves Door Open For More

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington. The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington.

The Veterans Affairs Department on Friday released a list of wide-ranging jobs it intends to exempt from President Donald Trump’s governmentwide hiring freeze, from medical and law enforcement personnel to cemetery caretakers.

The VA has carved out approximately 100 or so positions as exempt from the freeze because they are necessary to maintain the massive department’s “public safety responsibilities,” wrote Acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder in a Jan. 27 memorandum to VA’s top leadership. Snyder noted that the memo was “interim guidance” and would be updated once the department receives additional guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.

“The authorities outlined in the president’s memo provide VA the ability to continue filling essential positions that provide public safety services to our veterans,” the department said in a statement. “We strongly believe that these exemptions are in line with the president’s intent.”

Trump’s Jan. 23 presidential memorandum authorizing the freeze said that agency heads “may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” The freeze “applies to all executive departments and agencies regardless of the sources of their operational and programmatic funding, excepting military personnel,” the order stated.

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Acting OMB Director Mark Sandy sent preliminary guidance Jan. 25 to agencies with some clarifications on the broadly-worded freeze, noting that more detailed guidance was “forthcoming.” Many agencies, federal employees and job candidates, however remain confused over how the freeze applies to them. Federal employees have flooded the inboxes of lawmakers’ offices and even Government Executive with questions. Applicants are concerned about the current status of conditional offers or whether they should bother starting the process to enter federal service at all. Current employees have asked what jobs would be exempted and whether potential promotions are now defunct.

VA appeared to be the first major department to release detailed guidance on how it plans to apply the hiring freeze.

Snyder said in his memo to department leadership that in addition to exempting front-line patient caregiver jobs (doctors, nurses, therapists, etc.) from the freeze, he also was exempting positions at major construction projects the VA is in the midst of across the country at several facilities. “To ensure veterans are able to continue accessing state-of-the-art facilities and the quality care they deserve, I am granting exemptions to ensure the minimum staffing required to become or remain operational, and to ensure that the safety and health standards required by law are met. Those positions include: project manager, professional engineer, contracting specialist, and realty specialist.

Snyder also left open the possibility that other positions not listed could be exempted. “Any support positions required to bring those facilities up to operating capabilities will also be exempted to avoid any delays, but VHA [Veterans Health Administration] and the Office of Acquisitions, Logistics, and Construction must request and obtain secretarial approval on a facility-by-facility basis for those exemptions,” he wrote.

Law enforcement positions, including categories for police and security guards also were exempt, as was the position of chaplain.

Snyder also tagged several positions within the VA’s National Cemetery Administration as exempt from the freeze, including laborer, cemetery caretaker/foreman, operations supervisor, and maintenance mechanic, and other jobs “directly involved in the burial of veterans and their eligible family members.”

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. praised Snyder "for stepping up and attempting to limit the hiring freeze’s impact on veterans," pointing out the more 45,000 job openings for medical health care providers at VA facilities across the country. "By exempting certain positions within the VA, Acting Secretary Snyder has taken a positive step in veterans’ health care, but it’s simply not enough," Cox said in a statement. "Veterans can’t afford a delay in their patient scheduling or benefits. The VA is an integrated system of care, and while medical professionals are the positions most in need, all vacancies must be filled."

Cox said the freeze also hurts vets who aren't seeking care at the VA because the federal government "is the leading employer of veterans." AFGE represents more than 200,000 VA employees.

On Thursday, the Republican congressional committee chairmen overseeing VA sought assurance from the president that certain jobs at the department would be exempt from the federal hiring freeze.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in his Jan. 24 briefing said the hiring freeze applied to the VA, and in response to a question about the freeze and critical vacancies at the VA said this: “What we need to do, whether it’s the VA or any other agency, is make sure that we’re hiring smartly and effectively and efficiently. And I think the VA in particular, if you look at the problems that have plagued people, hiring more people isn’t the answer, it’s hiring the right people, putting the procedures in place that ensure that our veterans -- whether it’s health care, mortgages or the other services the VA provides to those who have served our nation -- get the services that they’ve earned. And right now, the system’s broken.”

The comments left some confused over whether the VA could claim some exemptions from the hiring freeze. VA did not immediately respond to a question about whether the department consulted first with the White House over the positions listed as exempt in Snyder’s memo.

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