VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the policy change is "consistent with our mission to promote a healthy environment for patients, visitors and employees at our facilities."

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the policy change is "consistent with our mission to promote a healthy environment for patients, visitors and employees at our facilities." Richard Drew / AP

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Union Files Grievance After VA Bans Employees From Smoking at Work

VA says new policy will improve care for veterans, but employees say it violates their contract.

The Veterans Affairs Department is prohibiting its workers from smoking at all of its health care facilities in a move it said would create a healthier environment for patients but quickly drew the ire of employees. 

In announcing the smoke-free policy on Wednesday, VA brought to its employees the same ban it placed on patients earlier this year. The department said the move, which is set to go into effect in January, would reduce both health and safety risks for veterans.  

The American Federation of Government Employees, however, which represents most VA workers, immediately filed a grievance over the decision, saying it violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement. A 2008 contract that remains in effect guarantees that employees at all VA facilities across the country provide employees with “reasonably accessible designated smoking areas.” 

VA first approached AFGE about the smoke-free policy earlier this year, according to the union, but the group declined to discuss it in “mid-term bargaining.” The department subsequently did not include any proposed changes to the smoking policy in May during normal negotiations. VA is therefore in breach of contract, said Thomas Dargon, staff counsel at AFGE’s National Veterans Affairs Council. 

Dargon requested that VA rescind the policy and restore the previous smoking procedures. 

The policy is set to apply to cigarettes, cigars and pipes, as well as e-cigarettes, vape pens and e-cigars. VA said it has already collaborated with “key stakeholders” in setting the new policy and is delaying implementation until January “based on union-negotiated timelines.” 

“This policy change is consistent with our mission to promote a healthy environment for patients, visitors and employees at our facilities and is an important element of improving our health care system,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “It will reduce the harmful effects of smoking, including exposure to second and third-hand smoke, as well as increase safety and reduce fire hazards caused by smoking.”

A 1992 law required VA to provide designated smoking areas for its patients. 

VA faced pressure after announcing in April it would prohibit patients, visitors, contractors and vendors from smoking starting in October to apply the same ban to its own employees, but the department said it was still working with its union to expand the policy. AFGE has repeatedly butted heads with VA, including after Wilkie in May proposed a new contract that would gut telework, official time and child care programs, among other changes. The two sides are currently in negotiation over the contract.