The VA Aims to Boost Pay for More Workers, Retain Employees at Facilities It Wants to Close
Congress just approved increases to top-level pay for some staff.
The Veterans Affairs Department is seeking more authority to boost pay for its employees and hire new ones faster, while also vowing to offer opportunities to retain the workers at facilities it is seeking to close.
VA officials applauded lawmakers and President Biden for recently passing and signing into law a measure to raise pay caps for nurses and physician assistants, but said more efforts were needed targeting other sectors of its workforce and entry-level staff. Turnover rates remain at record levels for nurses, they said at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, and the department is struggling to keep pace with pay and incentive increases being offered in the private sector. The officials also asked for congressional approval to extend special authorities VA received during the pandemic, such as expedited hiring and fewer restrictions on bonuses.
Asked about the workforce impact of recommendations VA released this week to reshape its health care services by closing some hospitals, opening others and outsourcing some care to the private sector, Gina Grosso, VA's assistant secretary for human resources, said any employee impact is years away. Should the closures be approved, VA will look to retain any impacted workers.
“There are a lot of options to be able to keep those employees,” Grosso said. “We can obviously move them to another location in the VA if they are interested, but I realize that is someone’s home. So we hope that we can leverage our telehealth capabilities and keep those employees employed.”
Ultimately, she said, the proposals would require more total workers. Due to the dated nature of VA’s infrastructure, she added, the department is concerned that if no changes are implemented the department’s “only option would be privatization.”
VA officials similarly said they hope to lean on telehealth and other virtual options to accommodate any employee seeking exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which remains in effect at the department.
“We are working hard for those individuals to find a place where they can work,” Grosso said. “Our sincere desire is not to lose anybody.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, said he would hold a hearing on VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review recommendations. He vowed to “carefully examine” if VA has properly factored its human capital needs into its proposals. Takano repeatedly pushed VA officials testifying at Thursday’s hearing to provide guidance on how Congress can help the department tackle its staffing woes, noting it has long been plagued by complex hiring authorities, non-competitive salaries and lengthy onboarding processes.
In addition to extending existing special authorities, the officials said they would like new permission to raise pay caps for more positions and boost minimum wage above the $15 per hour rate Biden recently put into effect. They also noted VA has convened a task force to address burnout within the health care workforce.
Takano questioned whether VA should continue reviewing its new hires—including with background checks and fingerprints—only after the workers are onboarded, one of the authorities Congress authorized during the pandemic. The department officials said it was a key tool to hasten the hiring process and lawmakers should make it permanent, but Takano said it came with “inherent risks” and it was not difficult to imagine a worst case scenario.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough recently said the department is in the midst of "completely redesigning" the onboarding process, one of several steps it is looking to implement to address staffing shortages. VA will also give its employees more authority to work outside their normal duty stations, boost child care subsidies, increase bonuses, grow its tuition scholarship program and promote better work-life balance. McDonough also said his AIR recommendations would "invest heavily in VA employees." VA would look to boost recruiting by building "state-of-the-art" facilities, bump up retention incentives, waive more pay caps and increase base pay levels.
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