Proposal Would Give Some VA Senior Executives More Pay

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is aiming to take action on VA accountability by the end of March. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is aiming to take action on VA accountability by the end of March. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

A small number of Veterans Affairs senior executives would be able to earn up to $50,000 more in annual salary under the department’s draft legislative proposal to make it easier to hire and fire top career officials.

A new pay band would be created for the department’s 344 career senior executive positions that would establish an annual salary range of between $205,000 and $235,000 for 20 SES jobs, according to a VA proposal, obtained by Government Executive, to revamp the hiring, compensation and removal of senior executives.

For 2016, the annual salary cap for the federal government’s senior executives is $185,100.

Under the VA’s proposal, which would move the department’s senior executives out of Title 5 into Title 38, there would be an additional top tier “1A” pay band that would include the new $205,000 to $235,000 pay range in addition to three lower annual salary bands that range from $150,000 to $205,000.

“Only the most complex executive leadership roles” at the department would be assigned to the highest pay band, the proposal said.

“Executives whose assignments and qualifications do not merit enhanced compensation would not receive additional pay under this system,” stated the draft, which lawmakers now are reviewing, because any such changes would require congressional approval. “Pay adjustments would be considered upon any change in assignment.”

The proposal also indicated a decrease in pay is a possibility, depending on the new job. Mobility is a key component to being part of the SES.

“Pay changes would be commensurate with the new assignment and may result in an increase or decrease in pay, considering the applicable variables and criteria of each new assignment,” the draft stated. “In the event no changes in assignment occur, a pay review would be required every two years.”   

Under Title 5, senior executives’ pay cannot be reduced if they move to an assignment with a lower-profile or fewer responsibilities.

The proposed changes are part of the department’s larger effort to exercise more flexibility in how it hires, pays, and fires its senior executives. Since the beginning of the year, three separate administrative judges have reversed the VA’s decisions to demote or fire senior executives accused of wrongdoing – and the VA is not happy about it. The draft proposal on moving senior executives from Title 5 to Title 38 would replace the current expedited demotion and removal authority under the 2014 Choice Act.

The VA also is having a hard time recruiting and retaining top employees in hard-to-fill jobs.

According to the draft proposal, as of late January, nearly 30 percent of the department’s SES slots were vacant, while 70 percent of the current corps is “eligible to retire immediately or will become eligible this year.”

VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in the last month have met with congressional VA committee leadership to discuss moving the SES corps from Title 5 to Title 38 of the U.S. Code. McDonald and his top deputies have said that doing so will give them more authority to expedite hiring and offer higher pay to better compete with the private sector for top talent.

But it also gives them more leeway when it comes to firing top career officials accused of wrongdoing. If senior executives are taken out of Title 5 and moved into Title 38 under the VA’s proposal, they would lose their rights to appeal disciplinary actions against them, such as removal, to the independent Merit Systems Protection Board. Instead, their appeals would be handled internally at the VA.

Right now, roughly 190,000 of the department’s 300,000-plus workforce falls under Title 38, including doctors, nurses and other categories of health care workers. Between 60,000 and 70,000 of those employees are considered “pure” Title 38, meaning they do not have the same standard MSPB appeal rights that Title 5 employees have. Hybrid Title 38 employees, including social workers, pharmacists and psychologists at the Veterans Health Administration, have the same rights to appeal adverse actions to MSPB as Title 5 employees have. The separate title and the two tracks within it emerged as a way to help the VA secretary fill certain jobs faster through the federal hiring process.

The Senior Executives Association has blasted the VA’s idea to convert the department’s SES corps into Title 38 employees. Jason Briefel, interim SEA president, has said such a move “will surely lead to the politicization of the delivery of care and benefits throughout the entire VA workforce, as these at-will executives will now serve at the complete pleasure of the political arm of the VA.”

In a Feb. 18 email to VA senior executives, McDonald said that “running VA like a business requires more flexibility than we currently have in the way we appoint, onboard, assign, develop, appraise, pay, and—if necessary—discipline executives,” adding that one way to do that could include shifting those employees from Title 5 to Title 38.

He also acknowledged the “questions and concerns” the idea has generated among VA senior executives. “Media reports have focused solely on the disciplinary appeals aspect of this proposal,” McDonald wrote in the email. “Some reports have tied it to recent MSPB decisions that reversed disciplinary actions taken against VA executives. While Deputy Secretary Gibson and I are disappointed in those MSPB decisions, our interest in converting VA executives to a Title 38 employment system pre-dates those decisions and addresses a much broader range of concerns.”

The accountability issue came up during a Tuesday hearing in which McDonald testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on the VA’s fiscal 2017 budget.

“We are going to try and take action by the end of March, and have a consolidation of bills put together that give the secretary the flexibility he needs to have accountability within the VA,” said Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in his opening remarks. “We want… to build a platform that's good for the employees, good for middle management, good for the VA, but most importantly, good for the veterans themselves so they know they're getting quality services and quality accountability,” Isakson said, adding that “accountability is the single most important thing we must accomplish in my judgment within this committee and the VA itself.”

Lauren Gaydos, press secretary for the Republicans on the VA committee, said the panel is currently reviewing the department's proposal to move SES employees out of Title 5 and into Title 38, “but we do not know yet if that will be included in the final bill.”

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