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Vice Ranking Member Takano Hosts Hearing To Assess Implementation Of VA Accountability Act

Jul 17, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Vice Ranking Member Mark Takano (D-CA) released the following statement after the full Committee met in open session to investigate how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 (Accountability Act) has been implemented over the past year.

The Accountability Act was a compromise bill that was intended to give VA more tools to hold bad employees accountable while maintaining important due process protections to shield good employees and whistleblowers from retaliation. The Accountability Act also codified the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). However, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the law is being used to fire rank and file employees instead of addressing management issues that are the real problem, and that of the 1,096 removals during the first five months of 2018, only 15 were supervisors, which is less than 1.4% of all employees removed. Housekeeping aides were the largest number fired, followed by nursing assistants, registered nurses, food service workers, and medical support assistants.

“Democrats and Republicans alike believe in strong accountability for employees at VA so that veterans can get the high-quality care they deserve,” said Vice Ranking Member Mark Takano. “That is why I am so deeply frustrated by the Trump Administration’s clear misuse of the Accountability Act. Instead of using the legislation to hold VA management accountable so that real change can be made, the Administration has instead systematically purged lower level workers and whistleblowers while refusing to cooperate with the VA Office of Inspector General when it comes to basic levels of transparency. The way this bill has been implemented runs counter to our values and to our duty to improve the lives of veterans and their families across the country. What is clear now more than ever is need for stronger accountability and oversight of the Trump Administration itself.”   

Rep. Takano Opening Statement As Prepared For Delivery

Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you for calling this important hearing.

When the Accountability Act passed last summer, I voted for it with a great deal of caution. I was cautiously optimistic that it would do what it set out to do, which was to improve care by making it easier to remove bad employees. I understood that the connection between dismissing bad employees and improved care was superficial, but the bill was the best of several legislative attempts to address the VA’s significant issues in its management of human resources. I voted for it because I hoped that the VA would take the tools we were providing it to not only address bad employees, but also protect good employees by improving the agency’s overall human resources functions and morale.

Now that we are one year out, however, I have real concerns about how the VA is using the tools that Congress provided in the Accountability Act. Of the 1,096 removals during the first five months of 2018, the majority of those fired were housekeeping aides. This has no doubt contributed to the fact that there are currently over a dozen medical centers with housekeeping vacancies. I have seen firsthand the problems caused by vacancies in housekeeping staff at the Loma Linda University Medical Center and how that directly impacts care for veterans. I also find it hard to believe that there are large numbers of housekeeping aides whose performance is so poor that it cannot be addressed. If that is truly the case, then it stands to reason that there are also management issues behind their poor performance. But of those 1,096 removals, only 15 were supervisors, which is less than 1.4 percent. Firing rank and file employees does nothing to resolve persistent management issues. Instead, it just leads to worse care from unnecessary vacancies.

This type of implementation was not the intent of the Accountability Act. I hope everyone on this Committee can agree that it is not possible to fire your way to excellence. In fact, this was a view that was shared by the Commission on Care’s findings, which also found that the VA’s human resources management was understaffed and under-resourced. This led to problems with poor hiring practices and poor workplace culture. This further exacerbated the VA’s difficulties hiring the best and the brightest, creating a vicious cycle.

The Accountability Act was supposed to be the VA’s tool to break that vicious cycle, but in the past year, we have heard indications that VA’s human resources management is in more disarray than ever. A high turnover rate is never a sign of good management, and good management starts at the top. For months, we have seen a steady stream of reports in the press of a hostile work environment in the VA’s human resources division, previously led by Peter Shelby. Then, just last week, it was reported that Mr. Shelby himself was fired.

Although the VA released a statement saying he left to pursue other opportunities and whether any of these reports are true, the damage to VA’s HR management has already been done. I’m not sure how the VA is supposed to improve its human resources management when such stories of its toxic environment at the top are rampant.

And finally, it is in the midst of this turmoil that this Administration released a new Executive Order that limits the amount of official time for employees to no more than 25 percent. As we all know, official time is not time spent on union activities because spending time on union activities is illegal. Rather, it is time spent by union officials to perform human resources functions and ensure a well-functioning work environment for all VA employees. With the current turmoil and vacancies in the VA’s HR division, the human resources function that employees on official time perform, is more important than ever in ensuring that care for veterans is not impacted. For the VA to sustain cuts to essential human resources functions from both ends like this does not inspire confidence that performance is improving at the agency.

The goal of the Accountability Act was not to further undercut the already strained VA workforce. Firing cannot replace good management. I hope our discussion today will shed more light on what the VA is doing in its implementation of the Accountability Act to ensure better performance among its employees through better management. I thank the witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to their testimony.

Witnesses

 

Panel 1

 

Mr. Peter O’Rourke

Acting Secretary

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Accompanied by:

 

Mr. Kirk Nicholas

Executive Director

Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Mr. Nathan Maenle

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Human Resources and Administration

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Panel 2

 

Mr. J. David Cox

National President

American Federation of Government Employees

 

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