Bill Would Give VA Chief More Power to Fire VA Employees

Robert McDonald
Robert McDonald

The House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that will turn every worker with the Veterans Affairs Department -- from custodian to pharmacist to surgeon -- into an at-will employee who could be fired without due process.

The committee rejected an amendment that would have required managers to show an employee represents "a clear and direct threat to public health and safety" before being summarily fired.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the committee, said the provision offered by Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, is "a nearly unobtainable, if not immeasurable bar to reach.

"This undefined standard would make it almost impossible ... to remove employees under this new authority, thereby ensuring the current stalemate exists with civil service rules would continue," Miller said.

Takano said everyone seems to agree that 99 percent of VA employees are dedicated workers, yet Miller's bill puts all of them in the same position as the one percent.

"I'm concerned we're ... turning everyone in the [VA] into an ‘at-will' employee. That seems to be a bridge too far," Takano said.

The committee voted along party lines, which was unusual for the veterans' panel, where members have routinely drafted bills that carried strong support from both sides of the aisle.

Under Miller's bill, an employee can be fired or demoted "if the Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] determines the performance or misconduct of the individual warrants" it.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 220,000 non-management VA workers, said the legislation is a threat to every VA worker because it will empower managers to fire with little or no valid justification.

The proposed law would eliminate the 30-day notice that workers facing termination must be given. Managers also would not be required to provide fired employees specific examples of poor job performance.

Miller reminded committee members that none of them voiced opposition last year when the same provisions were inserted into legislation aimed at Senior Executive Service employees at the VA.

"We were willing to give the Secretary the ability to fire at will 435 or 450 Senior Executive level folks, but now everybody wants to push back on other folks," Miller said.

As with the legislation targeting SES employees last year, workers under the proposed legislation would have only seven days to appeal their termination or demotion before the Merit System Protection Board, which will pass it along to an administrative judge for a ruling.

If the judge does not issue a decision within 45 days the termination or demotion is final.

Miller said he is determined to bring accountability to the VA, which has been plagued with a series of scandals in recent years, including veterans dying while awaiting appointments, unauthorized destruction of records, and delayed construction projects and related multi-million dollar cost overruns.

Only two officials were fired in connection with any of the controversies, he said.

Joe Moore, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a national law firm that exclusively handles veterans' appeals, said everyone wants VA to be rid of problem employees but the department needs to fix its review process.

Revoking or curtailing worker rights and safeguards is not what Congress should be doing to resolve problems, he told Military.com. Congress cannot cherry-pick which agencies are protected and which are not, he said.

"They need to go into the agency itself and reform their evaluation measures so it never reaches the point where bad employees are promoted to top positions," Moore said.

One amendment the committee did vote unanimously to insert in Miller's bill would cover the transportation and hotel costs of whistleblowers coming to Congress to give testimony, and also not require them to use VA leave or vacation time for the travel.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said in proposing the measure that when VA officials come from across the country to testify, the department covers all costs and the time does not cut into their vacation days.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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