Unions Are Making a Last-Ditch Effort to Expand Bargaining Rights for VA Medical Professionals
Labor leaders are urging lawmakers to vote to repeal a longstanding bar against negotiating over matters affecting patient care before the end of Congress’ session.
Officials with multiple federal employee unions on Tuesday urged congressional leaders to call up legislation expanding collective bargaining rights for medical professionals at the Veterans Affairs Department for a vote.
Last year, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced the VA Employee Fairness Act (H.R. 1948), which would end the longstanding prohibition on the department’s Title 38 employees, including nurses, doctors and other medical professionals, negotiating over issues of patient care and clinical competency, effectively giving them fully Title 5 collective bargaining rights. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
The bills came in response to the Trump administration’s maximalist approach to Title 38 bargaining restrictions, which included banning all Title 38 employees from using official time and declaring issues like the scheduling of shifts nonnegotiable.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted to advance the bill to the floor in May 2021, but there has been no action since then. Support within Congress for the bill has risen over the last year, however, with the House legislation boasting more than 200 cosponsors.
Leaders at the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees both issued statements Tuesday urging congressional leaders to call the bill up and pass it.
“Passage of the VA Employee Fairness Act is critical to recruiting and retaining top talent at VA facilities, which are already severely understaffed and underfunded,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “The extreme limitations placed upon the collective bargaining rights of VA medical professionals are unwarranted and unjust. It makes no sense that Title 38 health care employees at the VA are deprived of the same rights provided to their VA colleagues and those who do the same jobs within other federal agencies.”
“At a time when the VA is strained with staffing and funding issues, it is critical that these frontline workers have a voice in their workplace,” said Randy Erwin, national president of NFFE. “This legislation will improve health care coverage for our veterans and help fill the thousands of vacancies at the VA. The health care professionals serving at the VA . . . understand the complex and often unique needs of our nation’s veterans. Because of this, they absolutely should have the right to voice their professional opinions on the state of their workplaces and bargain collectively with management.”
The push comes at a critical time in multiple respects. First, Congress’ session ends at the end of this year—with a sizeable break looming ahead of the midterm elections—and any bills that are not passed must be reintroduced next year. And if Republicans, who have been largely opposed to the bill, take control of Congress this November, unions likely will have to wait at least two more years before there’s another chance to enact the legislation.
Additionally, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to “reset” labor-management relations and pursue more collaborative collective bargaining across the federal government, AFGE officials reported to Government Executive last month that the VA has continued to take a broad view of Title 38’s collective bargaining provisions, including by declaring proficiency ratings and cash awards nonnegotiable.
“We proposed provisions to bring greater fairness, accountability and objectivity to awards like retention incentives, like ensuring that nurses who receive the same annual proficiency rating receive the same award," said AFGE supervisory attorney Thomas Dargon last month. "But VA declared those proposals nonnegotiable and asked the secretary to take those matters off the table altogether.”
Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s National VA Council, said in a statementAFGE officials say that allowing medical professionals to negotiate over more aspects of their working conditions might improve recruitment and retention in positions that are experiencing staffing shortages.
“For decades, the VA has been chronically understaffed, losing medical professionals to private sector practices that provide better working conditions and competitive salaries,” Lee said. “To ensure our VA is fully equipped to service our veterans, it is critical that all VA workers have a voice on the job, regardless of their job title.”