Veterans Affairs workers could see bigger bonuses, additional child care support and more opportunities for promotion under a new workforce improvement initiative announced by Secretary Dennis McDonough on Wednesday.

“You’ve been doing your work while balancing the challenges of COVID-life and grieving so many vets, colleagues, family members and friends,” McDonough told employees in a department-wide address unveiling the changes delivered at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.

“You’ve had to cover for thousands of colleagues who were sick and unable to work, meaning even longer hours and later nights. And due to unprecedented demand for frontline workers, salaries have grown to historic highs in the private sector, but they haven’t moved at VA.”

“These are real challenges both for you and our nation, and we need to address them now, before it’s too late.”

Wednesday marked exactly one year since McDonough took over as secretary and roughly 23 months since the first VA patient to contract coronavirus was identified.

Since then, the department has undergone quarantine, closures, workforce shortages and other pandemic complications. McDonough said the strain put on employees has led to concerns about the department’s ability to recruit and retain top talent, especially for in-demand jobs.

For example, the turnover rate of nurses at VA today is the highest it has been in 15 years.

The changes announced this week are designed to alleviate some of that stress. Along with plans to lobby Congress for better salary scales for VA workers, the moves include some executive orders by the secretary to immediately provide more money and support to employees who may be eyeing private-sector openings.

“Due to the pay caps, there’s a point at which VA nurses can get promoted but can no longer get the raises that are supposed to come with those promotions,” McDonough said. “So they’re taking on more responsibility for the same pay.

“That is unsustainable, and it’s going to mean serious losses if we don’t act soon.”

He said he will use new authorities to award bonuses above previous limits to “reward employees who have gone above and beyond” during the pandemic. In addition, the White House has approved retention incentives of up to 50 percent of employee base salaries (up from 25 percent) to keep skilled workers at the department.

VA leadership will also expand the number of positions eligible for higher general schedule grades and promotions, and establish a new task force to “improve work conditions, promote work-life balance, increase scheduling flexibilities and reduce burnout,” the secretary said.

The department also plans to offer more education assistance for employees enrolled in degree programs and expanding eligibility for its child care subsidy assistance.

Previously, any worker whose household made less than $89,000 a year could qualify for $500 a month in child care assistance. That income number will now jump to $149,000.

McDonough did not say how much the new initiatives will cost and promised more details to employees in agency memos in weeks to come.

“You provide vets with timely access to world-class health care, earned benefits, and the lasting resting place they deserve,” McDonough told employees. “And it’s because you have battled through the pandemic, getting VA to the point where we are now delivering more care, more benefits, and more services to more veterans than ever before …

“I promise that we’re going to invest in you, look out for you, and fight like hell for you, just like you fight for our nation’s vets.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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