VA halts job competitions at laundries

The Veterans Affairs Department has decided to suspend public-private job competitions at 59 laundry facilities nationwide, bringing all competitive sourcing within the Veterans Health Administration to a halt.

VA senior leadership chose to stop the laundry competitions Tuesday after the department's general counsel determined that federal law prohibits competitions on VHA jobs unless Congress funds the competitions, which has not occurred to date.

"We simply felt it was prudent to suspend any further activities as they relate to the laundries," said Dennis Duffy, principal deputy assistant for policy and planning at the VA.

VA leaders had asked the agency's general counsel to clarify an April 28 ruling, which held that by federal law, the VHA must receive funds to hold job competitions. Some VA officials believed that a separate statute, Section 8153 of Title 38 of the U.S. Code, could provide authority to finish the laundry competitions, many of which already were under way when the general counsel issued its April 28 ruling.

But in a Monday opinion, the general counsel rebuked this view. "We were so far along in the process at many laundries that we felt perhaps there was latitude within provisions of Section 8153 to proceed, but our general counsel has clearly indicated to us that that wouldn't be prudent," said Duffy.

The suspension applies to five competitions in which the VA decided to outsource the work, but had not yet signed contracts with private firms to provide laundry services, according to Duffy.

"To ensure that we're not in any way acting contrary to the statutory authority provided to us, we're going to hold solicitations in abeyance until we get the necessary legislative relief," he said.

The VA has asked Congress for authority to tap up to $75 million in health care funds- $25 million in fiscal 2003 and $50 million in fiscal 2004-to stage job competitions at the VHA. The House did not approve this request in its version of the fiscal 2004 VA spending bill. The Senate has yet to act on its version of the VA appropriations bill.

Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, welcomed the VA's action. "We're pleased the VA has acquiesced to our cease and desist demand on outsourcing studies, but then the VA is only following the law," he said. Harnage had threatened legal action if the VA continued its laundry competitions. About 1,000 civil servants work at VA laundries.

The VA is still planning to hold a competition involving 1,500 employees of its canteen service, which provides cafeteria services to outpatients. The canteen service is an independent unit within VA and is not affected by the April 28 ruling.

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