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Union protests downgrades of VA support jobs

Jun. 14, 2012 - 04:39PM   |  
By ORIANA PAWLYK   |   Comments
AFGE employee Rotimi Onaghise, left, protests with VA employees against VA's job downgrades during a rally on Wednesday at VA headquarters in Washington.
AFGE employee Rotimi Onaghise, left, protests with VA employees against VA's job downgrades during a rally on Wednesday at VA headquarters in Washington. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

Veterans Affairs Department employees are protesting the department’s decision to downgrade certain support positions.

About 400 people organized by the American Federation of Government Employees rallied at VA headquarters on Wednesday, calling on the department to halt further downgrades.

The department is downgrading the grade levels of patient support assistants, housekeepers, building maintenance workers, and payroll and tax support staff, among others. Those affected by the downgrades are at the lower General Schedule grades, such as GS-5s and GS-4s, according AFGE.

“Does it make sense to downgrade positions at the bottom of the [Veterans Health Administration] pay scale?” asked Alma Lee, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Veterans Affairs Council. “I wonder why the department is only conducting classification reviews of support personnel rather than agencywide review of all positions.”

Forty-two percent of VA employees at the GS-5 level are veterans, and 46 percent at the GS-4 level are veterans, Lee said.

“Once these employees take a downgrade, even if their base salary is maintained through a ‘safe pay’ provision, these employees essentially lose all benefits in regards to [reduction-in-force] rights, any type of rewards and pay increases for, potentially, years,” Ami Pendergrass, staff attorney at the AFGE VA Council, said in an interview during the protest.

VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said in an email that “VA has worked diligently to protect employees in the Medical Support Assistants specialty affected by this process, and will continue to make every effort to minimize the number of individuals affected by these actions. VA will continue to provide grade and pay retention to any impacted employees so they can maintain their current salaries.”

The VA is reclassifying positions in an effort to harmonize them. Until now, more than 150 VA facilities have taken their own approach in classifying positions, Schuda said. “Over time, this has resulted in inconsistencies in grade levels of position descriptions for some employees performing similar work in different VA facilities,” she said in an email.

The Office of Personnel Management directed that VA review its job classifications to ensure they are consistent. Those reviews “resulted in the need to downgrade employees in certain positions,” she added.

VA officials intend to consolidate and standardize all position descriptions across the department. A team of classification experts are reviewing more than 6,000 job descriptions with the goal of reducing that to 1,200. VA officials have already created more than 600 standardized descriptions for its most critical jobs. The department aims to have all 1,200 new job descriptions in place by April 2014, Schuda said.

“More than 10,000 Medical Support Assistants (MSAs) who would otherwise have been downgraded are instead being converted to hybrid Title 38 positions, better reflecting the duties they perform, with no loss of compensation,” Schuda said. VA expects to convert the majority of those positions this month, but some will require more extensive review and be converted “within the next few months,” she said.

AFGE is pressing the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to impose a moratorium on the downgrades, said council lobbyist Mike Rosenblatt.

Congress “has the power to tell the VA to stop spending money on these downgrades, to stop carrying out more until it is investigated, to reform the system, and to do what is right,” said Marilyn Park, another council lobbyist.

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