Democrats Push to Grant VA Medical Professionals Full Union Rights
Federal law currently prevents Veterans Affairs Department medical workers from bargaining over matters related to patient care and clinical competence, although much is at the discretion of the VA secretary.
Democrats in both the House and Senate are pushing to expand the collective bargaining rights of medical professionals at the Veterans Affairs Department to match those of workers throughout the rest of the federal government.
Unlike most federal workers, who are hired under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, medical workers at the VA are Title 38 employees. Under that section of federal law, employees have the right to unionize, but they cannot bargain over matters related to “direct patient care” or “clinical competence.”
In addition, it is entirely up to the VA secretary which issues fall under those two exceptions to employees’ bargaining rights.
“An issue of whether a matter or question concerns or arises out of professional conduct or competence, peer review or the establishment, determination or adjustment of employee compensation under this title shall be decided by the secretary and is not itself subject to collective bargaining and may not be reviewed by any other agency,” the law states.
During the Trump administration, former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie took an expansive approach to the concept of patient care and competence, completely eliminating Title 38 employees’ access to official time spent on representational duties.
On Tuesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced the VA Employee Fairness Act (S. 771), a bill that would remove the direct patient care and clinical competency exceptions from Title 38, effectively granting VA medical professionals the same collective bargaining rights most employees already have elsewhere in the federal government.
“The nurses, physicians, dentists, physician assistants and other health care workers at our nation’s VA medical centers, many of whom are veterans themselves, are the best at what they do,” Brown said in a statement. “Expanding the right to collectively bargain is one of the most important tools we can use to empower these workers and ensure they have a voice in the workplace.”
“Thanks to VA’s talented health care professionals, VA offers some of the best health care in the world,” Takano said. “During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA’s doctors, nurses and medical professionals even stepped up to serve all Americans. However, many of these providers still don’t have key workplace rights that are standard across the federal government. If we’re going to fill VA’s 39,000 vacancies, we need to ensure VA can continue to recruit and retain top tier medical professionals and provide exemplary care for our nation’s veterans.”
American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, whose union represents VA employees, said the bill would be a correction to the strongarm tactics employed by the previous presidential administration.
“The restrictions placed upon doctors’ and nurses’ union rights have always been unwarranted,” Kelley said. “Two years ago, the previous administration went further and stripped medical professionals of almost all of their union rights as part of its larger union-busting agenda. It is critical that Congress pass the VA Employee Fairness Act to ensure that all VA workers who have elected union representation have a voice in the workplace, regardless of their job title.”