World War II veteran John Mohun, 94, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix on Tuesday.

World War II veteran John Mohun, 94, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix on Tuesday. Dexter Marquez/Veterans Affairs via AP

VA Is Increasingly Leaning on Contract Nurses as COVID-19 Cases Surge

Employees lament staffing shortages even as VA has brought on 66,000 new workers since the novel coronavirus pandemic began.

The Veterans Affairs Department is turning to contract health care workers to bolster staff as novel coronavirus cases surge throughout its network, supplementing a hiring surge that started at the beginning of the pandemic.  

COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks, with more than 17,000 cases now active at VA facilities among staff and patients combined, an all-time high. VA has not updated the figures since Friday due to site maintenance. About 12,000 employees have contracted the virus—a 56% increase in the last month—with 11% of those cases currently active. 

On a call with reporters Wednesday, VA employees across the country who represent their colleagues as local American Federation of Government Employees leaders said the uptick is straining resources at the department. VA officials have touted a series of waivers from the Office of Personnel Management that have allowed the department to bypass normal hiring procedures during the pandemic and onboard 66,000 employees, but current staff said it still is insufficient. 

“It’s like going against the army with a handgun,” Marcellus Shields, who represents his fellow VA employees in Wilmington, Delaware, said of confronting the pandemic surge with staffing shortages. “We’re outnumbered.”

Shields and others said VA is wearing out its employees, who have frequently faced demands to work overtime—and threats of discipline if they decline—to make up for existing staffing shortages and the growing number of employees out sick. The department has consistently told its health care workers to continue reporting to work even after known exposures at their facilities or if they live with family members who test positive. Now, the employees and union representatives said, even healthy workers are taking unpaid time off or departing altogether. 

“Staff are leaving,” said Barbara Galle, a VA nurse who represents employees in Minneapolis. “They don’t like how they are being treated and they don’t want to put their lives on the line.” 

Despite the hiring surge, VA reported around 32,000 vacancies at the end of fiscal 2020. Nearly all of those were within the Veterans Health Administration, though VA noted they were mostly positions that were unfunded by Congress. The department has brought on contract nurses at particularly understaffed facilities, though that has done little to assuage employee concerns. 

Staffers said they are happy to get whatever help they can get, but contract workers do not always have the same commitment to the mission of helping veterans as do career employees. Union representatives lamented that the temporary staff typically make more than VA nurses and the department has not bargained over their use. 

“No offense to these individuals,” said Geddes Scott, a nurse who represents employees at the St. Albans Community Living Center, a VA nursing home, of the contractors. “They’re professionals. But they don’t have the same vested interest. They are there for the dollar.”

Several employees suggested the use of contract workers has led to less hiring of career staff at their facilities, meaning the root of the staffing issues is going unaddressed. 

While employees have largely reported improvements in the availability of personal protective equipment since the department joined much of the country in experiencing shortages early in the pandemic, they are beginning to report some renewed concerns. N95 masks in particular, they said, are at times in short supply. 

VA did not respond to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, as VA battles the pandemic, Secretary Robert Wilkie is facing increased pressure to step down due to his role in seeking to discredit a congressional aide who reported being sexually assaulted at a department hospital. Following an inspector general report finding some wrongdoing on Wilkie’s part, more than 20 lawmakers and six of the largest veterans service organizations have called on him to resign.