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Better Bonuses and Child Care Subsidies Are Coming to VA Employees

On Wednesday, Secretary Denis McDonough announced new steps to hire and retain workers amid unusually high turnover.

The Veterans Affairs Department is taking steps to boost pay, bonuses and child care benefits for its workforce, aiming to end an exodus of workers leaving the agency. 

VA is losing employees due to burnout and comparatively low pay, Secretary Denis McDonough said in Charleston, S.C.,  on Wednesday, in a speech announcing a series of 10 steps to better reward the workforce. Those include upping retention bonuses to 50% of base pay for employees, from the current cap of 25%, and utilizing special authority from Congress to waive the normal caps on bonuses during the pandemic. VA is also looking to create new occupational series that will result in more opportunities for promotions and raises, McDonough said.

Due to current statutory pay caps, promotions for VA nurses often do not result in a salary increase. McDonough has been lobbying Congress to pass the VA Nurse and Physician Assistant Retention and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act, which would allow for physical assistant and advanced practices nurses to earn up to level one of the Executive Schedule and registered nurses to earn up to level two. In 2022, that amounts to $226,300 and $203,700, respectively. Currently, all of those positions are capped at level four, or $176,300. The House Veterans Affairs Committee recently advanced the measure. 

McDonough said passing the bill would also limit the occasions when VA employees can “literally walk across the street” and receive a pay increase of up to $20,000 at a private facility.

“Due to unprecedented demand for frontline workers, salaries have grown to historic highs in the private sector, but they haven’t moved at VA,” the secretary said. “These are real challenges—both for you and our nation—and we need to address them now, before it’s too late.” 

He noted that many VA employees, including housekeeping aides, food service workers and others, recently saw a pay boost after President Biden increased the minimum wage for all feds to $15 per hour. 

While McDonough praised the workforce for its perseverance during the pandemic, he highlighted the historic burnout it has brought on. 

“You’ve had to cover for thousands of colleagues who were sick and unable to work, meaning even longer hours and later nights,” the secretary said. VA is currently experiencing its worst turnover rate in 15 years, and is anticipating needing to hire 15,000 nurses per year for the next five years. 

To address those needs, VA will expedite hiring by revising its qualification standards and “completely redesigning” the onboarding process, McDonough said. It will look to encourage retention by allowing employees to work outside their typical duty stations whenever possible. Despite its high turnover, VA netted 3,000 employees in the last quarter of fiscal 2021 and has consistently grown its workforce over the last several years. 

The department has typically provided $500 in child care subsidies to any employee making $89,000 or less. McDonough announced on Wednesday it will up that cap to $149,000. VA is also growing its scholarship program, with the secretary noting it helped pay tuition for 2,300 employees last year. McDonough also launched a task force to improve working conditions, including by promoting work-life balance, increasing scheduling flexibilities and examining the benefits of deploying a chief well-being officer to every facility. He vowed to boost diversity and promised to provide N95 masks to every employee. Like many health care networks, the department struggled at the outset of the pandemic to provide employees with the equipment they needed. 

McDonough called the new steps the “tip of the iceberg” and promised more announcements in the near future to improve compensation and working conditions for VA employees.