A group of 12 federal employee unions and associations are voicing their displeasure with several provisions in the Veterans First Act.
The group—which includes the Senior Executives Association, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and Federal Managers Association—penned a May 18 letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., outlining three sections in the omnibus reform bill that the coterie said undermine employee rights.
"If enacted, these provisions would undermine constitutionally-guaranteed protections available to Department of Veterans Affairs employees who are subject to discipline for misconduct or performance," the letter said. "Moreover, these provisions would fail to protect the integrity of services to our nation's veterans by permitting the VA's workforce to become vulnerable to undue political influence."
The Veterans First Act was introduced on April 28 as a bipartisan reform bill shepherded by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Acting SEA president Jason Briefel said the bill, if passed, could face a challenge in the courts for its sweeping discipline changes, but could also usher in a spate of political favoritism and reprisals.
"There're a couple of different levels here," he said. "One is should this become law, the immediate on the VA. By the read of the SEA and other signatories to the letter, [there are] potential unconstitutional deprivation of rights and due process for public employees, whether they are senior executives or otherwise.
"But I think the bigger picture is kind of the precedent that policies of this nature would set for the government."
The letter takes issue with the following sections of the bill:
- Section 112 (e) and Involuntary Reassignment Abuse
The section allows the VA to decrease the pay of an agency director who has been involuntarily reassigned as the result of a disciplinary action and prohibits it from being appealed. The employee groups said that such a move would open the door to political reprisals on government employees.
- Sections 113 and Limitations on Review of Removal of VA Senior Executives
This section gives a fired senior executive 21 days to appeal the decision and confines the appeal process to within the VA. In the letter, the employee groups said the move could extend beyond the SES to "establish an employment-at-will doctrine toward federal civil service employment, opening the door to partisan political abuse in myriad ways."
- Section 121 and the Removal of VA Employees
Removal of a non-SES VA employee can only be appealed within 10 days of the decision and requires the Merits Systems Protection Board to render a decision.
Absent from the letter signatories was the American Federation of Government Employees, which counts 100,000 VA employees in its National VA Council, a third of the union's total membership.
In a statement, AFGE said it supports the bill following negotiations with Blumenthal on issues like allowing probationary employees to become full-time, providing fired employees their complete evidence file and 10 business days when preparing an appeal, performance appraisals and time-limits on reprimands in employees' files.
But AFGE also said it didn't support the due process changes for SES members in the bill, particularly a reduction of annuity benefits for executives fired for misconduct, and seemed to express surprise at SEA's stance on the issue.
"We believe this represents a terrible precedent regarding earned compensation for federal employees and we would vigorously oppose any expansion of that effort in any future measure," it said. "We note that SEA has stated that they do not oppose the pension claw back provision as currently drafted."
The bill cleared the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs unanimously on May 12, but could face a tough battle once it hits the Senate floor.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.—who also authored VA reform legislation—said in a May 17 statement that "labor unions have so far gotten their way in writing the VA accountability provisions in the bill" and promised a strong fight against the bill as it stands.
Inversely, Briefel said that the current system of accountability is already sufficient and it's the leaders of agencies who have not adequately used their power to police misconduct.
"There's a whole host of authorities that are not being fully leveraged," he said. "Whether that stems from a lack of coordination between investigators, management, human resources, general counsel and otherwise, again that's much more of an implementation issue."