The unions sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

The unions sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Unions are Urging the VA to Better Educate Employees About Their Rights Under COVID Law

Although Congress has approved a number of measures to help federal workers stay safe during the pandemic, labor groups say the Veterans Affairs Department has not adequately trained employees on those benefits.

A group of five federal employee unions last week called on the Veterans Affairs Department to do a better job of informing employees of the rights and benefits available to them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Federation of Government Employees, National Association of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, National Nurses United and the Service Employees International Union sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough and Assistant Secretary for Human Resources Gina Grosso urging the creation of a “joint COVID-19 training task force” to improve the department’s training for employees on a number of programs created to keep them safe during the pandemic.

The Veterans Affairs Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Last year, Congress passed legislation that, in part, established temporary emergency paid leave for employees who contract COVID-19 or who are caring for family members who have the virus, as well as making it so that frontline feds who test positive for COVID-19 are presumed to have gotten the virus on the job, for the purposes of workers compensation. Although the emergency paid leave provision expired last September, the Office of Personnel Management has encouraged agencies to continue to grant administrative leave to employees unable to work because of the pandemic.

But the unions said that the VA has not sufficiently trained employees on these benefits, leading to uneven implementation and usage by employees and managers. In the case of administrative leave, the labor groups said that in some cases, requests are “arbitrarily denied,” while some employees simply don’t know they have the option to request leave in the first place.

“A model employer should be consistently engaging its workforce and encouraging them to exercise their rights and take advantage of available benefits,” they wrote. “We urge the department to take an active role in educating the VA workforce by conducting regular, immersive trainings designed to empower them with the knowledge they need to keep themselves, their loved ones and veterans safe during the pandemic and beyond.”

Under the unions’ proposal, the joint task force would design a new set of training focused on COVID-19-related leave and benefits, with the aim of implementing the new training within 60 days.

According to the union representatives, much of the blame for lackluster training on employees’ rights and benefits falls on the decision to “centralize” the department’s human resources functions at the regional Veterans Integrated Services Network level.

“While VA employees are working around the clock at health care facilities across the country, HR representatives are, in most cases, working remotely at the VISN level,” they wrote. “As a result, employees with questions about their leave and benefits are left to call HR hotlines and email faceless ‘business partners’ in VISN offices . . . Because of HR centralization, it has become more and more difficult for frontline employees to obtain the assistance and critical resources they need to exercise their rights and understand the leave and other benefits available to them during the pandemic.”

The unions said that improving training on COVID-19 benefits and programs could go a long way to establishing the collaborative labor-management relationship envisioned by President Biden in his executive order aimed at encouraging collective bargaining in both the federal government and the private sector.

“Over the past year, you spoke frequently about your desire to ‘reset’ employee and labor relations at the VA and to ‘partner’ with unions to rebuild and strengthen the career workforce,” they wrote. “Our unions are working tirelessly to defend and educate VA workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is not our responsibility alone. The department must take an active, meaningful role in educating and empowering VA workers on the rights and benefits available to them during COVID-19.”