Pay and hiring flexibilities established as the Department of Veterans Affairs grappled with providing treatment during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the agency to far exceed hiring goals set for 2020.
The VA has long struggled with staffing shortages, with vacancies at the agency reaching nearly 50,000 by the end of 2019. Agency leaders set the goal of hiring 13,000 employees in 2020, a number that was overwhelmingly outdone by the 20,000 new employees that were hired in just the first half of the year.
“We do anticipate seeing continued increases for the rest of the year,” Jessica Bonjorni, chief of human capital management at the Veterans Health Administration, testified at a July 1 Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Negotiations between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees have continued for over a year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted particular challenges.
Accounting for the usual turnover of employees that retire or leave to seek other jobs, Bonjorni noted that the agency had seen a net increase of approximately 8,000 staff.
The agency has also made great gains in cutting the time it takes to bring on a new employee during the pandemic.
“It used to take 90 days to get a new employee in the door, and in the meantime we lost some potentially good employees because somebody else swept them up. So for the VA to bring on new staff, not in 72 days, but in 72 hours — three days — that shows what the agency is actually capable of when it sets itself to the task,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for the VA to be able to fix some of its internal hiring processes, when many of the challenges I think could have been made years ago.”
Though many of the new hires are intended to be permanent employees at the agency, some have been brought into temporary positions that may only last a year or less.
“We have seen a higher number of temporary employees hired. We do anticipate that we will convert over a large number of those into full time hires. But we’re also seeing some trends across the broader health-care industry that will certainly impact the VA,” said Bonjorni, explaining that many other health-care industries are laying off workers, which makes the stability of the VA all the more attractive.
The agency has also been provided flexibility through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to offer pay incentives past the usual caps, in order to retain employees in essential positions.
“We realize that this is not just nurses and doctors, even though they are integral to the care we provide for our patients, but it is the whole team. So we are, in fact, not only using incentive retention awards across the board for all levels of employees, but also special contribution awards for employees across the board as well,” said Victoria Brahm, director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network 12 at the VHA.
But the advantages that have enabled the VA to onboard employees more quickly than before will not all continue past the pandemic, and problems that inhibited VA hiring in the past still persist.
The VA has, for example, approximately 120 different appointment authorities for new hires, making it impossible for hiring officials to keep track of the many laws and regulations.
“Having more streamlined process where there were fewer laws to learn I think would be helpful for our staff. And having flexibility all the time in our pay-setting policies would also be helpful for us to continue to meet the needs of our hiring managers,” said Bonjorni. “We just need to be agile.”
And despite pandemic-boosted hiring numbers for the agency overall, vacancies still remain for new or redesigned departments that don’t directly deal with pandemic care.
“Right now we’re planning to open a precision in oncology program, and that requires new positions. So that gets added to this number,” said Steven Lieberman, acting principal deputy under secretary for health at the VHA.