Employees across various Department of Veterans Affairs facilities are being kept out of the loop as their leaders make plans to address COVID-19 needs and staffing challenges, American Federation of Government Employees officials said on a Dec. 16 press call.

“The leadership keeps the union out of all decisions, no pre-decisional [consultation] at all. We don’t know how many masks we have; we do not know the amount of COVID [positive] employees running around,” said Regina Smith, president of AFGE Local 424 at the Baltimore VAMC.

That lack of planning involvement has become especially relevant as VA medical centers begin to roll out COVID vaccinations for their employees.

According to Barbara Galle, president of AFGE Local 3669 at VAMC Minneapolis, her facility required employees to reserve a time slot and show up at a separate part of the facility at their designated time. This could cause some nurses to miss their appointments, because they can’t leave their patients when their time slot comes up, forcing them to be placed further down the wait list for a vaccine.

“What we would like to see is that they go to the floors and the areas to give the vaccines, the reason being then you’re not taking away from patient care, you’re not expecting staff to leave a patient so that they don’t miss their opportunity to get a vaccination and you have staff around to monitor for the 15 minutes required after the vaccination. But once again AFGE is not allowed to provide any input into this,” said Galle, describing the union as being “shut out” of essential decisions.

A VA spokesperson said that the agency has “put in place rigorous safety measures at all of its facilities, including employee and veteran COVID-19 screening, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment such as face coverings,” and “employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms are immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others,” though union officials said that they have seen less than adequate cleaning and employees required to continue working while awaiting COVID test results.

Galle, Smith and others said that employees at their facilities have struggled or in some cases failed to obtain the necessary personal protective equipment, like N95 masks and face shields, and the union is not kept apace of PPE stockpiles.

Union officials said that the pandemic has also exacerbated staffing shortages at many facilities, with frontline staff required to put in overtime to cover the necessary shifts.

“We’ve heard from VA central office that they’ve hired these 10,000 employees. In Minneapolis, the positions that are posted and the positions that they’ve hired for are management positions. There are no new frontline staff added,” said Galle. “The only new frontline staff they’ve added are temps.”

Geddes Scott, President AFGE 1988 at St. Albans Community Living Center in New York, said that he has not been able to get access to records of who is on duty at his facility.

“We know we’re working short; we know we don’t have all of the bodies in the building, but the agency is refusing to tell us how short we are,” said Scott.

“But in the middle of the pandemic, the agency was able to go and contract out for over 100 nurses, over 50 environmental management service employees.”

Those contracted employees, according to the union officials, are making higher salaries than the career VA employees and entitled to greater COVID hazard pay.

Hazard pay has itself been a challenge across the VA, as central leadership left it up to the individual facilities to determine how it would award such pay. This led to some facilities categorizing it as a performance award, which is up to managers to file.

According to Scott, employees that had no direct patient care work ended up getting upwards of $3,000 in awards, whereas nurses working on the front lines got $250.

Those limited workforces are in turn having an impact on patient care, as leadership at some hospitals have altered acuity levels — the number of patients assigned to a single nurse based on their severity of needs — to make up the difference.

Galle said that, for example, a patient that had just come out of heart surgery would usually have a one-to-one acuity level for around six hours, meaning that they needed the undivided attention of a nurse post-operation. That patient may now have their nurse looking after themselves and another patient due to short staffing.

“The worst part is that the agency won’t even listen to our input. We represent the frontline staff, the people who are on the ground, who have been doing the job and know what they’re doing,” said Galle.

Employees in non-medical departments of the agency are also feeling the crush, as Jim Rihel, president of AFGE 940 for the Veterans Benefits Association Philadelphia Regional Office, said that his office has reduced the amount of credit that each benefit claims case means for an employee and increased the amount of credit an employee needs to meet acceptable performance. The result is employees having to get through significantly more cases per day to meet expectations, even when they are not assigned that minimum number of cases in a day.

“AFGE’s comments lack credibility considering that during the pandemic, VA employees have provided life-saving COVID-19 care more than 105,000 patients and tested nearly 1.1 million patients and employees for the virus, all while limiting the department’s current employee infection rate to less than one percent — much lower than other health care systems,” the VA spokesperson said.

“Additionally, as part of VA’s COVID response, VHA has hired 65,696 employees from March 29 to Nov. 17.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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