Congress

New bill aims to lift union restrictions at the VA

Medical staff working at Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities would have greater collective bargaining protections when it comes to patient care, under legislation introduced in the House and Senate March 16.

The VA Employee Fairness Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, aims to remove certain provisions of U.S. Code that prohibit collective bargaining on professional conduct or competence, peer review and adjustments to employee compensation.

“Expanding the right to collectively bargain is one of the most important tools we can use to empower these workers and ensure they have a voice in the workplace,” said Brown in a news release.

“It means these essential workers can advocate for patient safety and improved health-care coverage, they can earn higher wages and they can have more paid time off, which will improve our veterans’ care and strengthen local economies, families and communities.”

The restrictions on collective bargaining as it relates to “professional conduct or competence,” cover issues of direct patient care, meaning that unions and grievance procedures are not applicable in cases where a nurse or doctor spoke out about patient care conditions and was punished.

“Registered nurses have a duty to advocate for their patients at the bedside, and now more than ever they must be protected when they speak up about issues that affect patient care. Without full collective-bargaining rights, nurses and other health-care workers in VA facilities can be vulnerable to retaliation when they bring up workplace issues such as unsafe staffing, insufficient supplies, or inappropriate nurse assignments,” said Irma Westmoreland, RN and chair of Veterans Affairs for National Nurses United, in the news release.

“The VA Employee Fairness Act would strengthen our nurses’ ability to speak out about patient safety issues. We strongly urge all members of Congress to support this bill and help ensure that the VA continues to provide the highest quality of care to our veterans.”

Current collective bargaining restrictions cover physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-duty dental auxiliaries and chiropractors working at VA medical facilities.

“The restrictions placed upon doctors’ and nurses’ union rights have always been unwarranted. Two years ago, the previous administration went further and stripped medical professionals of almost all of their union rights as part of its larger union-busting agenda,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley in the news release.

Current code also leaves what counts as professional conduct or competence, per review or employee compensation to the discretion of the VA secretary, without the ability to bargain over such a definition.

Under the Trump administration, the VA was one of the more aggressive agencies in pursuing President Donald Trump’s orders to restrict collective bargaining and union access at federal agencies, and union officials have accused agency negotiators of continued bad-faith bargaining, even under the new Biden administration.

“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA’s doctors, nurses and medical professionals even stepped up to serve all Americans,” said Takano in the news release.

“However, many of these providers still don’t have key workplace rights that are standard across the federal government. If we’re going to fill VA’s 39,000 vacancies, we need to ensure VA can continue to recruit and retain top tier medical professionals and provide exemplary care for our nation’s veterans. By granting these essential healthcare workers full collective bargaining rights, our bill will help make that possible.”

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