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Recruiting Veterans, and Job Downgrades

In June, Veterans Affairs Department officials rounded up employers ranging from federal agencies to banks to auto manufacturers and companies like J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, and put them in a Detroit convention center with thousands of veterans, career coaches and interview schedulers for a three-day job fair.

By its end, employers had offered more than 1,300 jobs to veterans and conducted more than 5,500 interviews.

The goal is one that VA talks about a lot: putting veterans of all ages, wars and types of service to work, particularly in its own ranks. The job fairs address some of their challenges. Coaches are on hand to translate résumés from military speak to a civilian-friendly format and to match a veteran’s experience in the service with skill sets needed in the workforce.

Despite the tough labor market, John Sepúlveda, VA’s chief human capital officer, says agencies and private sector employers want to hire vets in fields such as information technology, accounting, landscaping, nursing and engineering. But many of them have never had a job outside military service.

“We’re like the ultimate matchmaker, and we want to try to make some magic here,” Sepúlveda says.

VA touts many initiatives aimed at putting veterans and their families to work. There’s no shortage of them. In addition to VA for Vets, there’s Joining Forces, led by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to promote job opportunities for military spouses. And President Obama’s 2009 executive order directing federal agencies to create veterans employment offices spawned the Council on Veterans Employment and a pilot program to help homeless vets find work.

The goal is to expand and improve the department in charge of looking after unprecedented numbers of veterans. VA has gotten its share of bad press as troops return home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental wounds that place great demands on its workforce. The personnel picture isn’t an altogether flattering one.

A week before the Detroit job fair, about 500 VA employees from across the country rallied outside VA headquarters, across the street from the White House. The protest, organized by the American Federation of Government Employees, aimed to call attention to the hundreds or thousands of Veterans Health Administration employees facing changes in job grades that could affect take-home pay, or at least advancement and benefit opportunities.

The plan was to downgrade the pay levels of certain medical support positions at VA hospitals, including patient support assistants, security officers, biomedical technicians, claims assistants, maintenance workers, payroll support staff and housekeepers.

Most of the jobs are at the bottom rungs of the General Schedule, including GS-4s and GS-5s who make $40,000 a year or less.
Marlon Askew, an administrative support assistant at a VA hospital in Temple, Texas, learned 18 months ago through a memo from VA officials that his job would be downgraded from GS-5 to GS-4. Although the change would not affect his base pay, his cost-of-living adjustments would drop $2,000 per year beginning in 2013. His GS-5 salary is about $36,000 per year. The switch also would limit his retirement benefits and potential to receive raises or bonuses.

“This affects everything,” says Askew, who has been with VA for 16 years after serving in the Army during the first Gulf War. The cost-of-living payments help inform his future planning for his children’s expenses and car payments. “We’ve been told so many different reasons for this happening. It’s fraud,” he says.

It’s possible Askew could get a reprieve: VA announced it was temporarily halting the downgrades in late June, just weeks after the protest in Washington. The department is assessing how it came to decide thousands of employees like Askew would receive downgrade memos and whether that decision should stand.

The reasons for the downgrades, Sepúlveda says, are many and often misunderstood. Most stem from bureaucratic issues that prevent streamlining VA’s human resources system, creating inconsistencies in job descriptions and allowing pay grades to slip through the cracks.

The department is working with the Office of Personnel Management to revise its job classifications. There are more than 6,000 position descriptions at VA, “many of which are obsolete or are relatively unique to a specific position or individual, and we needed to reform all that,” Sepúlveda says.

But, he says, media reports have erroneously linked the classification revisions to downgrading. In many cases, decisions to downgrade resulted from a series of employee appeals in which OPM’s rulings are just now taking effect.

“For example, if a medical support assistant is a GS-5 and becomes aware that a colleague is a GS-6 and they file an appeal with OPM, they review the circumstances by reviewing work that the appellant does and that others are doing,” he explains. “And they can conclude, ‘Well, gee, you’re a GS-5, but really you should all be a GS-4.’ ”

Askew says he and his colleagues manage 24-hour coverage at a VA hospital, directing calls, assisting patients, monitoring co-payment schedules and assisting family members. Under his new pay grade and “phone operator” title, his duties remain the same, but Sepúlveda says the agency has a “legacy issue” when it comes to job duties.

“Hundreds, maybe thousands, of employees, through no fault of their own, were put into grades that did not match the work that they do,” he says. One reason is VA’s decentralized human resources apparatus: 170 HR offices operate autonomously from the central office that reviews personnel decisions.

VA has established a task force to collect data and determine the basis for downgrades in each situation. In a June 29 memo from the department’s human resources management office, officials acknowledge “a great awareness” of both the classification and OPM appeal issues.

Sepúlveda says VA must balance taxpayer demands, OPM regulations and the concerns of its employees. For a department charged with leveling the playing field for veterans in a fractured job market, and one that’s determined to recruit many of them into its own workforce, HR reform is emerging as a clear priority.

Employees like Askew hope so.

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