A few years back, a VA Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ created a “secret wait list” to make it appear the hospital was filling appointments and meeting the demand. This prompted Congress to examine VA’s hiring practices and empowered the departments’ secretaries to request authority to fire employees more quickly and hold them accountable more easily, making employees afraid of making mistakes.
Enter, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. It passes in June 2017 and President Trump has said, “My administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve.” He called Congress to empower every cabinet secretary to “remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
VA employees say these new performance standards don’t give them enough time to improve and VA management continues to prize their goals over employee well-being. They say one mistake may cost them their jobs.
According to a November 2017 memo from VA Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Willie Clark, VBA employees are entitled to one opportunity to correct a performance deficiency each year.
One VBA employee in Milwaukee, Wisconsin offered to accept a demotion to a lower General Schedule level and $10,000 pay cut, rather than rick removal. He said he felt like he was being targeted. “Everybody is afraid, scared,” he said. “The pay is pretty good, but people are very afraid for their jobs. They’re afraid to act. Everybody is so worried about the repercussions, it’s really hard to do the right thing sometimes.”
Another employee at the VBA may have her 28-year career in jeopardy after failing a performance rating by less than 1 point, a VBA rating specialist and local representative for AFGE in Philadelphia said.
According to the VA’s 2017 All Employee Survey, VA’s overall employee engagement fell in 2017, and there were “significant declines” in employee attitudes toward the workplace and leaders.
The challenges and inconsistencies of implementing this accountability act have drawn the attention of Congress. “We have been told of multiple instances in which manager have attempted to remove employees for actions such as missing a deadline or moving slowly after an injury, even they were first offenses,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont), ranking member of the VA Committee, wrote in a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin. “We are sure you would agree that these are not the types of offenses that rise to the level of immediate termination.”
New HR Guidance
New guidance from VA Central Office shows the department is giving VA supervisors the option of using progressive discipline with their employees instead of it being a managers’ main tool, to deal with problematic employees.
According to an August 2017 memo from VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Peter Shelby, instead of placing employees on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), supervisors can fire or demote an employee if:
- The employee fails a critical element in his/her performance plan.
- There’s a “reasonable belief” that an employee’s “performance deficiency is so serious that is cannot be improved”.
- The deficiency poses a clear danger to the employee or others.
- The deficiency presents a risk to important services for veterans.
- The employee repeatedly fails non-critical elements of his/her performance plan.
“VA facilities are expected to adhere to this guidance (i.e., not use PIP’s) when implementing adverse action for covered employees,” the department’s spokesperson Curt Cashour said, “Improvement plans may be used when addressing performance deficiencies for employees not covered by [the new section].”
It’s no longer required that employees serve a 90-day PIP, and supervisors won’t use PIP’s to address an employee’s performance deficiencies before proposing a removal or demotion.
A training document describes supervisors new flexibility in more detail. “Management can also base an adverse action of performance deficiencies noted during the rating cycle, provided it was shared with the employee in some form of communication (email or memo),” the guidance said.
Employees who are unsuccessful on one or more of the critical elements in their performance plans have “up to 4 pay periods (2 months) to correct performance deficiencies.” If they fail to meet performance targets during that time, managers should propose a removal or demotion. Employees have only 1 opportunity to correct a deficiency each year.
The VA’s implementation of the law is disappointing so far, Tester said. They expected the department would use its new authority to discipline employees more quickly. “In many of our conversations leading up to the passage of the bill, we discuss utilization of these authorities in cases of egregious conduct, but that is not how it currently appears to be executed by your agency,” Tester wrote in the letter.
A former executive said when shown copies of VA’s performance memos, “If that’s the way you approach your human capital [and] your employees, that’s a recipe for long-term failure of the organization.”