Major veterans service organizations have rallied behind proposed legislation to speed up the firing process at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but a government union charges it would be a gross violation of workers' rights.
"Trampling on the rights of honest, hard-working public-sector employees is not the solution to holding bad employees accountable for their actions," American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox said. He said the bill would set up different standards for VA employees and other federal workers.
Earlier Thursday, the 1.7 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 2-million-member American Legion gave strong endorsements to the proposed VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators.
The bill debuted after a federal appeals court overturned the firing of Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA hospital that was at the center of the 2014 wait times scandal, forcing the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Helman will now have an opportunity to appeal her dismissal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
VA Secretary David Shulkin said the court ruling underlines the need for Congress to give him more authority to remove incompetent or non-performing employees.
In a statement, Shulkin said that the court's action "underscores yet again the need for swift congressional action to afford the secretary's effective and defensible authority to take timely and meaningful action against VA employees whose conduct or performance undermines veterans' trust in VA care or services."
On Thursday, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) introduced the bill that would give the VA secretary the authority to reprimand or fire any senior executive in a 21-day internal department grievance process.
Rank-and-file employees would have similar job actions appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, with a review process of no more than 180 days.
Isakson said the bill would give Shulkin "the tools necessary to discipline bad employees in a timely manner while protecting whistleblowers from the threat of retaliation and ensuring the quality of care that our veterans receive at the VA."
VFW National Commander Brian Duffy said, "The VFW wants the secretary to weed out the non-performers and those whose personal conduct brings doubt and dishonor upon thousands of dedicated employees. He said that maintaining the status quo doesn't work for those who have borne the battle."
In the past, "Despite multiple verified cases of gross misconduct, the secretary of the VA had little authority to hold employees accountable, and many veterans subsequently lost faith in the system," said American Legion Commander Charles E. Schmidt.
In response to the proposed bill, the AFGE's Cox said, "This legislation is the antithesis of accountability because it would allow corrupt or incompetent managers to get away with firing anyone who challenges them. Real accountability would strengthen, not weaken, protections for the rank-and-file employees who are subjected to mismanagement, abuse, and political corruption."
Cox said the bill would lower the burden of proof required to terminate a VA employee from a preponderance of the evidence to substantial evidence, meaning employees could be fired even if most of the evidence is in their favor.
"All this legislation does is hand more power to the VA executives and political appointees who failed our veterans in the first place by creating fake wait lists and hiding an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires' disease," he said.
In an exchange with Rubio in a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday, Shulkin thanked the senator "for recognizing that the vast amount of our employees are doing terrific and heroic work and are serving this country's veterans, and we should be proud of them, of the work that they're doing."
Shulkin explained, "We're talking here about a very, very small number of employees who have deviated and drifted away from the ethical [requirements] and the responsibilities that they took on to serve our country's veterans and no longer should have the privilege of serving in our system.
"In those cases, I wish it wasn't true. I wish today I could tell you I have the tools to do the right thing, to be able to remove those employees. I do not," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.