The number of people fired at the Department of Veterans Affairs increased by more than 500 during President Donald Trump's first year in office in a reform move that Democrats charged is unfairly targeting low-wage workers.
The VA said a total of 2,537 people from a workforce of more than 360,000 were fired in 2017, including 1,443 removals and another 1,094 probationary removals during training periods.
That was an increase of 536 firings over the previous year. In addition, the VA reported another 1,096 people were fired in the first five months of 2018.
In 2016, the VA fired 2,001 people, including 983 removals and 1,018 probationary removals, according to VA data.
The firings were the subject of a House hearing Tuesday on the first year since the enactment in June 2017 of the Veterans Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which Trump signed to fulfill a campaign pledge to reform the VA and weed out poor performers who mistreat veterans.
At the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, VA officials defended their expanded firing authorities under the Accountability Act against charges that low-level workers are being targeted while management is getting a pass.
Democratic lawmakers and the VA's union cited VA data showing that only 15 supervisors were among the 1,096 VA employees who were fired in the first five months of 2018.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said most of those fired from January through May were on the low-wage custodial, laundry and food service staff.
However, Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke said the VA's firing rate for low-level employees has not changed compared to previous years.
"It's in the data. When we look back to 2014 and forward, you don't see a significant difference from year to year in unrealistic firings or removals of any category of employee," including the so-called "housekeeping" workers.
Takano said most of those workers were veterans themselves. Veterans make up about one-third of the VA's workforce.
"I think people on both sides of the aisle are gravely concerned about this," he said. "I am very troubled by how I am seeing the implementation of this. It is not possible to fire your way to excellence."
Nathan Maenle, principal deputy assistant secretary for VA's Office of Human Resources and Administration, said the data did not represent "a significant change in the past three fiscal years in the number of actions that were taken" against custodial, laundry and food service workers.
He said the VA has seen "less than one percent increase in terminations at that level of employee" since the Accountability Act was passed, adding that the firing rate at the VA "compares similarly to the private sector."
Firings Vs. Turnover Rates
O'Rourke also cited the high turnover rate among low-wage employees in both the civil service and the private sector.
Takano said the issue is firings, not turnover rates.
"That is our highest turnover area," O'Rourke said of low-wage VA workers, but "our turnover rates are much lower than the private sector."
When counting firings, "if you go back to 2015, you're going to see the same amount of removals even before the accountability law" on the low-wage level, he said.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the committee chairman, called the Accountability Act "one of the most consequential reforms to the federal civil service system in decades" but said he is concerned about how the VA is putting it into effect.
"I also want to make it clear that while this law made it easier to discipline poor employees, it did not give VA the license to use this authority to target employees, no matter their position or grade, or to retaliate against whistleblowers," he said.
Since the law was enacted, the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) has received about 170 whistleblower complaints per month, O'Rourke said.
From June 2017 to June 2018, the VA received a total of about 2,000 submissions from whistleblowers, and those complaints resulted in recommendations of disciplinary actions against 54 senior-level staff, he said.
O'Rourke said retaliation against whistleblowers is still a concern and is "absolutely unacceptable. I will not tolerate it."
OAWP now puts a hold on any administrative actions against whistleblowers while the complaint is investigated, he added. In many cases, the complaints are unfounded or the result of poor communication, he said.
"Lots of times, what we found was two sides not talking to each other," O'Rourke said.
The poor communication is indicative of the need for a "change of culture" at the VA, he said, but that will take "time, persistence and patience. We must change the VA's culture from within."
"Right now, we're dealing with the first year of implementation," he said. "New rules -- everyone's trying to figure that part of it out."
Ending a Feud?
Roe questioned the lack of written procedures for OAWP, staff shortages, and O'Rourke's recent refusal to share data on whistleblower complaints with the VA's Office of Inspector General, led by Michael Missal.
In a report to Congress in June, the VA said OAWP was authorized for 102 full-time employees but had 73 on staff as of June 1. Additional hires were pending, the VA said.
Takano pressed O'Rourke on whether he had ended his feud with Missal over access to whistleblower data that surfaced in an angry exchange of letters last month.
Missal charged that O'Rourke could be in violation of the law.
"You are reminded that [OIG] is loosely tethered to VA and in your specific case as the VA inspector general," O’Rourke wrote back. "I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly."
At the hearing, O'Rourke said the dispute with Missal was "unfortunate," but he maintained that Missal's "access to OAWP [data] has been unfettered since day one. My commitment remains the same."
Takano pressed again, asking whether O'Rourke would work with Missal.
"Yes," O'Rourke replied.
In his State of the Union address in January, Trump claimed that 1,500 VA employees had been fired since he signed the Accountability Act in June 2017.
"Since its passage, my administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve," he said. "And we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do. I will not stop until our veterans are properly taken care of, which has been my promise to them from the very beginning of this great journey."
In a June letter to the VA's Office of Inspector General, four Democratic senators asked Missal to investigate allegations that VA managers are using the Accountability Act to go after employees for spurious reasons, such as moving too slowly after a workplace injury.
"We have had numerous VA employees and their representatives contact our offices about the law's implementation, indicating that the authorities provided by the law are being used in an inconsistent and inappropriate manner," the senators said.
"Unfortunately, VA still has not been able to provide us with data that would alleviate our concerns or demonstrate in any way that application of these authorities has been consistent, fair and appropriate," said the letter signed by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, cited the example of the VA Medical Center in Pittsburgh. He said 46 housekeeping staff had been fired this year, while at the same time the center had 300 job vacancies.
"From a housekeeper's vantage point, they've seen 46 of their colleagues punished in the last year," Lamb said. "They see 300 of them missing. Their work is additional every single day, and very few, if any, managers have been dismissed at that time."
Roe interjected in support of Lamb. "If you're short of personnel, you don't fire adequately performing employees," he said.
"You reward those people to stay there. If I were a manager at Pittsburgh and I was having to get rid of somebody and I was already short of personnel, they'd have to do something pretty egregious for me to get rid of them," Roe said.
'Climate of Fear'
In his testimony at the hearing, J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 240,000 workers at the VA, said the Accountability Act is creating a "climate of fear" in the VA workforce that is impacting veterans' care.
"There is fear; there is a lot of fear," Cox said. "The Accountability Act has proven to be one of the most misguided and counterproductive VA laws ever enacted. I think it creates fear and, when you have fear in an organization, you never have the best performance."
O'Rourke asked the committee for patience in oversight on the implementation of the bill. When asked what he would do immediately if he could, he gave a lengthy response:
"We have a lot of times where we don't work together on problems. We try to work on them either individually or we just try to not think about them too much," he said.
He said success would involve "breaking down those barriers, whether it's between IT and VHA [the Veterans Health Administration] or whether it's between VHA and VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration]."
O'Rourke said he wants to see the VA "working problems collaboratively with the veteran's outcome in mind" rather than at cross purposes. "That's what I would change immediately if I could. That involves personalities. People have been doing things their whole careers."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.