Union calls for weekend pay parity for VA nurses

The largest federal employees' union is urging lawmakers to pass legislation guaranteeing Saturday premium pay for nurses at the Veterans Affairs Department. The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter Feb. 6 to Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W. Va., asking for his support in correcting a law that requires premium pay for registered nurses at the VA, but that excludes licensed practical nurses and nursing assistants, among others. Rockefeller is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. By law ( U.S. Code Title 38, Section 7453), registered nurses receive additional pay for each hour of service they work on Saturdays and Sundays. The law applies to regular work shifts, not overtime work. The extra pay is equal to 25 percent of the nurses' hourly rate of basic pay. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and nursing assistants receive premium pay for regular work on Sunday ( U.S. Code Title 5, Section 5546). LPNs can get premium pay for work on Saturdays at the discretion of the director of the regional medical facility, but nursing assistants are restricted to Sunday premium pay only. Medical facility directors can order premium pay on Saturdays for LPNs for such purposes as recruitment and retention of personnel. "This situation is unfair, bad for morale and unnecessarily complex," said AFGE President Bobby L. Harnage in the letter. Donna Schroeder, a VA personnel management specialist, said the discrepancy in premium pay between nurses and other health-care employees exists because the two groups are appointed under different authorities in law. Registered nurses fall under Title 38, but nursing assistants, for example, fall under Title 5. To make matters more complicated, certain employees are considered "hybrids." Hybrid employees, including licensed practical nurses, are appointed under Title 38, but are paid under Title 5. Schroeder said she did not know the reasoning behind the differences in the laws. Linda Bennett, a lobbyist for AFGE, estimates that the current law prevents at least 30,000 employees at VA hospitals from getting premium pay for regular Saturday shifts. "Health-care givers understand that Saturday and Sunday shifts come with the job because veterans are sick and need care round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week," said Bennett. "But, the current law on weekend pay is unfair and arbitrary." AFGE plans to send similar letters to all members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and will be making the disparity in Saturday premium pay a priority this year, said Bennett. Bennett said Rockefeller's office has not yet responded to AFGE's letter. In November 2000, President Clinton signed S.1402 into law, which includes a provision guaranteeing an annual pay raise for VA nurses under the national comparability system used for other federal employees. The pay raise took effect in January 2001.
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