Thousands of Department of Veterans Affairs employees who were fired, suspended or demoted over the past three years under provisions of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act must be reinstated with full back pay, the Federal Labor Relations Authority recently determined.
The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which became law in June 2017, enables VA managers to more quickly institute disciplinary action for underperforming employees.
The Veterans Benefits Administration notified employees in September 2017 of the change in disciplinary processes, at which point the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council filed a national grievance.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is returning to union-restricting policies it first imposed in 2018 after a series of executive orders called for such limitations.
The changes to VA disciplinary procedure violated the union’s contract with the agency, which states that employees must be given the opportunity to improve their performance before receiving disciplinary action.
And though the VA argued that the law superseded a collective bargaining agreement, an arbiter determined in 2018 that the law itself does not dictate what an agency does prior to the decision to remove an employee, such as granting that employee an opportunity to improve first.
The FLRA upheld that arbiter’s interpretation.
“We are extremely pleased with the FLRA’s decision to uphold the arbitrator’s initial award. The VA Accountability Act has been used disproportionately to fire low-level employees, not to fix issues caused by failed leadership, such as chronic understaffing amidst a global pandemic. We are glad that these employees will deservedly be made whole, and that new leadership is coming to the VA who will work together with VA workers to deliver the highest standard of care to our veterans,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a news release.
The agency will be required to reinstate all fired and demoted employees under the Act with full payment of lost wages and benefits, which, according to the union, amounts to thousands of low-level agency employees.
“President Trump has repeatedly boasted about firing low-level employees using provisions of the VA Accountability Act, falsely labeling front-line VA caregivers ‘sadists’ and ‘thieves’ while completely failing to bring accountability to anyone in VA leadership. This decision is a complete victory for our members and VA employees across the country who have dedicated their lives to caring for our nation’s veterans, even through a pandemic,” said Alma Lee, AFGE NVAC president, in a news release.
The relationship between organized labor and the VA has been strained throughout the Trump administration, as bargaining over a new contract has been rife with disagreements and accusations of bad faith bargaining.