Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough says VA will soon begin firing employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough says VA will soon begin firing employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19. AP file photo

VA Begins Disciplining Employees as Thousands Have Yet to Prove They’re Vaccinated

Only 70% of VA's health care workforce has uploaded proof of their COVID-19 inoculation.

The Veterans Affairs Department has begun disciplining employees who have not proven that they are vaccinated against COVID-19, sending an untold number into counseling following a deadline to turn over their documentation. 

Just 70% of the 380,000 employees at the Veterans Health Administration met the Oct. 18 deadline to show proof of vaccination, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said on Wednesday, leaving 114,000 workers who have yet to do so. VA previously reported that 88% of their health care workforce had said they were vaccinated, but that was based on data from self-reported “attestation forms.” Under stricter guidance the Biden administration has rolled out, VA employees must now submit paperwork to actually demonstrate that they have been inoculated.

VA is providing the Biden administration with a test case for the rest of the federal government, which faces a deadline to get vaccinated next month. The department moved on its own ahead of President Biden’s decision to require the vaccine for all federal workers due to its large health care workforce. 

McDonough said due to VA’s disparate nature, it was unclear exactly how many employees had entered counseling. The disciplinary process and timing is up to each front-line manager at the local level. He assured the 30% of the VHA workforce that has yet to turn over their proof of vaccination that they are “going to be getting a visit to make sure that they get their data into the system.” 

“They’re required to do it,” McDonough said. “If they choose not to do it, and after we get through the disciplinary process, continue to not do it, they’ll be fired.” 

Still, McDonough remained optimistic, while noting the process to increase the documented vaccination rate would take time. 

“We’re off to a good start,” he said. 

Some employees opted to submit paper forms, which supervisors may have not yet uploaded into VA’s systems. McDonough noted that there are several steps to the disciplinary process—including both counseling and suspension—and it may take two to three months to actually fire someone. 

VA is still crunching the data, but McDonough said the number of employees seeking medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate has surged over what the department saw after a mandate for flu vaccines went into effect. VA is not planning to probe further into the reasoning of employees’ religious exemption requests, but those asking for them could still be fired in situations where it would leave a facility staffed with too few vaccinated employees. Such a scenario would create an “undue hardship” on the department, McDonough said, and VA will deny the exemption in those cases. Those employees would then be separated if they still decline to get vaccinated. 

“We have a responsibility, as I said from the beginning, to protect the health of the veterans who come to us for their care,” McDonough said. “We couldn’t allow an unvaccinated employee to work in that setting.”

The secretary said VA is engaged in some planning in case there is a large-scale exodus of staff, either due to firings or voluntary separations that result from the vaccine mandate. The department has previously reviewed attestation data to determine the nature of the work of those who had indicated they would not get vaccinated to prepare for any gaps. Due to the pandemic, he added, VA has significant recent experience in moving employees around to fill in at locations that are understaffed. 

“We’re looking really hard at it,” McDonough said.  

The remaining 40,000 VA employees will face the same Nov. 22 deadline as the rest of federal employees. The Veterans Benefits Administration—the next largest segment of the VA workforce after VHA—will soon grow, as it is set to hire 2,000 new employees in the coming weeks. VA’s claims backlog has spiked in recent months as the department has made a wider population eligible for benefits and VBA is bringing on the new staff to address it. McDonough said VBA months ago identified fiscal 2021 money for the hires, which will allow it to bring the employees on board swiftly. The claims backlog is expected to grow to 260,000 in the coming days, but VA is hoping to reduce that to 100,000 by 2024.