President Biden speaks at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The president was celebrating the first anniversary of the PACT Act, which included an array of recruitment and retention incentives for the VA.

President Biden speaks at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The president was celebrating the first anniversary of the PACT Act, which included an array of recruitment and retention incentives for the VA. George Frey/Getty Images

Using special funding and authorities, some agencies are finding big success in growing their workforces

The Biden administration is growing some workforces to previously unseen levels.

Two agencies at which the Biden administration has prioritized hiring are finding success using specific authorities and special funding, with both bringing their workforces to levels not seen in recent memory. 

The Veterans Affairs Department’s health care arm, which makes up the vast majority of the agency, has surpassed 400,000 employees, a feat officials called unprecedented. The Veterans Health Administration has aggressively pursued hiring and retention as it begins folding in a wave of new patients into its system as part of the PACT Act President Biden signed into law last year that makes millions of veterans exposed to burn pits overseas newly eligible for government care. As part of that law, Congress included an array of recruitment and retention incentives that now appear to be paying dividends. 

VHA hoped to grow its workforce by 3% in fiscal 2023, but Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal told reporters this week it has so far seen a 5.5% increase and the agency could double its anticipated rate by the end of the fiscal year. It is 93% of the way toward its goal of 52,000 hires on the year and attrition has slowed to an unforeseen rate. VA has rewarded high performers more generously after the PACT Act removed caps on bonuses and allowed for special contribution awards worth $25,000. The department has given raises to 10,000 nurses under the law's authority and is looking to soon begin offering critical skill incentives, special pay rates and pay waivers.

“If we keep up the pace here, we are likely to far surpass 52,000, which was our external hire goal,” Elnahal said. “So we’re really proud of these hiring results.” 

To date, more than 800,000 veterans have submitted PACT Act-related benefit claims and more than 4 million have received screenings for possible toxic exposure. Elnahal noted VHA is still failing to hire an adequate number of nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses, as well as housekeeping aides. VA officials previously said the department had seen an uptick in housekeeping aide hiring after removing certain restrictions that stymied their onboarding. 

At the Internal Revenue Service, meanwhile, Commissioner Danny Werfel said this week that his agency is closing in on 90,000 employees, a total it has not reached in more than a decade. IRS significantly surged its hiring efforts after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—a measure President Biden signed into law a year ago Wednesday—which provided the agency with an $80 billion boost (now expected to be cut to $60 billion as part of the deal Biden and House Republicans struck to raise the debt ceiling) to up its rolls, improve its customer service and modernize its IT systems. 

Werfel praised the progress his agency has made, but noted it has a long way to go to make up for the significant losses it sustained since 2010. The agency plans to net more than 25,000 employees with IRA and annually appropriated funds, with 12,000 of those going toward backfilling positions lost due to attrition. Werfel highlighted that IRS is hiring applicants fresh out of school, at the mid-career level and those near retirement. The agency has hired thousands of new customer service staff, which has led to boosting its phone answering rate from 10% in 2022 to nearly 90% this year. It has hired 700 employees to newly open or reopen 42 Taxpayer Assistance Centers. 

The commissioner said, despite some concerns raised by some, most new staff have gone toward assisting taxpayers and there is no “army of armed IRS agents who are out to shake down average taxpayers.” He noted that IRS is no longer making surprise visits to homes and businesses. 

IRS is also working to automate more work to free up its employees for other matters. It has increased the number of scanned tax returns by 225 this year compared to last. It has launched voice and chatbots to provide self-service options for taxpayers calling the agency.

IRS has said it will bring on a total of 10,000 employees in fiscal 2023 and another 20,000 in fiscal 2024, a plan that remains in effect despite the funding cuts agreed to in the debt ceiling deal. Werfel cautioned, however, that it will have to reduce its goals going forward if Congress cuts funding to its annual appropriations and it therefore has to use IRA funds for every day operational expenses. 

"Having this funding means we can build the capabilities and the solutions to help taxpayers now and in the future, the staffing and the tools and the technology appropriate for today, not 2010 or previous decades," Werfel said. 

The staffing increases mark a significant reversal from recent trends: more than 43,000 employees left IRS in the period between fiscal years 2019 and 2022 and it ended fiscal 2022 with an 8.5% attrition rate. The IRS' inspector general recently pushed the agency to use more recruitment and retention incentives to reverse its high attrition rates. 

“One of the challenges we have is that we have to make sure that our hiring keeps pace with attrition,” Werfel said. “And we have done an effective job of making sure that, that we're achieving that.”

IRS will be getting some help as it readies itself for its unprecedented surge in hiring. It has signed two contracts to assist with recruiting and background investigations, while the Office of Personnel Management has provided expedited hiring authority for up to 10,000 Taxpayer Service and Enforcement positions annually through 2027. Still, the agency faces many hurdles as it attempts to meet its ambitious plan.

To reach its hiring objectives, IRS vowed to redesign its hiring and onboarding processes to make them faster and better able to attract more people. That will include publishing rolling job announcements, recruiting in more places and communities, reviewing position descriptions and qualification requirements and digitizing candidate assessments. It will market the “value proposition” of working at IRS and use analytics to target potential candidates, including by opening up “pre-hire skills development bootcamps.” The agency said it will improve its physical office space and develop new work models to allow for more flexible work hours and geographic locations. IRS noted it has more than 100 personnel systems that it will, by 2025, consolidate into one platform “to streamline the management of employee data.”