Coronavirus cases among VA workers are climbing much faster than in the general population.
The Veterans Affairs Department has netted more than 5,000 employees since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the new employees are helping handle a recent surge of cases within VA's health care network, officials told lawmakers on Thursday.
VA has onboarded a whopping 20,000 new staff members since March 29, netting 8,000 workers after accounting for departures during that time. Using various authorities, some of which were newly granted in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, VA has brought its time-to-hire down from a 94-day average to 10-12 days during the pandemic. In some cases VA has onboarded applicants in just three days, department officials said at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday.
The new hires, primarily on the frontlines of the Veterans Health Administration, are facing a new crisis at the department. Active cases at VA have spiked by nearly 200% over the last month to 4,400, while total cases have increased by 50%. Nearly 2,400 VA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, a 57% increase over the last month that well exceeds the 44% uptick nationally over the same period.
The department has sought to boost testing for its employees, though officials had to walk back assertions that all workers who wanted a COVID-19 test could get one. Forty employees have died from symptoms related to COVID-19, an increase of 25% from where that number stood one month ago. Christina Noel, a VA spokesperson, said the uptick in cases was attributable to more testing, which has increased by 41% since May. Hospitalizations among all VA patients, she said, has stayed steady.
"All VA medical centers are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments," Noel said.
VA employees around the country have raised concerns throughout the pandemic about unsafe working conditions at department facilities, citing inadequate personal protective equipment, dangerous leave policies, limited testing and insufficient staffing. The department activated a “crisis capacity” posture in April for its PPE due to shortages of N95 respirators, surgery masks, gloves, gowns and other equipment, though officials now say they have an adequate supply. Steven Liberman, VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, noted the department now has a 30-day stockpile of PPE.
Lieberman and Jessica Bonjorni, chief for human capital management at the Veterans Health Administration, said the department—which maintained 46,000 vacancies as of March 31—is currently assessing what lessons it can learn to reform its hiring process permanently. Some of the VA’s flexibilities, such as direct hiring authority, required assistance from the Office of Personnel Management. The CARES Act enabled VA to exceed normal pay caps for frontline workers, though Bonjorni said the department had done so in only 150 instances in the month-long period from mid-April to mid-May. She acknowledged the figure was too low and said she expected it to climb in newer data, primarily due to an increase in the number of employees who would otherwise hit their caps later in the fiscal year.
Bonjorni added VHA’s goal to reduce its onboarding time to three days has made the department “very creative” and helped dismiss the commonly held notion the hiring process is too complex to change.
VA is “starting to evaluate each one of those changes we made, figure out how many days they shaved off the process and how we can retain many of those changes,” Bonjorni said. She explained the department would need “additional support” in the form of legislative or regulatory reform to implement all of them. Bonjorni added that 15% of the hires VA has made were on a temporary basis, but the department expects to convert many of them to permanent employees.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 VA workers, condemned any long-term change, including a permanent push for more direct hiring.
Such efforts “are contradictory to merit system principles that the system was built upon and [ignore] the fact that VHA already has direct hiring authority for the majority of its workforce,” AFGE said in a statement to the committee. “Instead, VA should use alternative methods to strengthen the VHA workforce that avoid the unintended negative consequences of direct hiring authorities.”
This story has been updated with comment from VA.