VHA: Bargaining rights within reach

Collective bargaining rights remain denied to tens of thousands of Veterans Health Administration doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. But the VA Employee Fairness Act bill, passed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, could change all that.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with well over 350,000 employees, is a powerhouse of civil service professionals available to serve the needs of the nation’s nearly 20 million veterans. And the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) part of the VA comprises most of these employees, implementing and providing healthcare services. 

Yet a core component of VHA—the tens of thousands of VHA doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers—though unionized in name, are not allowed to collectively bargain even to the limited extent permitted most federal employees. 

This month, a bill that would change this unequal situation—the VA Employee Fairness Act of 2021—has cleared the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and could get a vote in the full House of Representatives.  

Why don’t VHA employees already have proper bargaining rights? Because instead of being hired under authority of U.S.C. Title 5, like most feds, these crucial personnel are hired and governed in the workplace under Title 38. This latter authority allows large exclusions—in practice, removing VHA healthcare workers in total—from having any bargainable employment issues open to them. 

The problem has only worsened in recent years. In 2018, former VA secretary Robert Wilkie reduced the already-restricted rights even further. Wilkie rescinded labor organization use of “official time”—that is, he stopped the union from using even a sliver of the agency’s overall work hours to handle employee grievances and other such business. 

Stakeholder federal employee advocates are putting their weight behind the VA Employee Fairness Act. 

“The VA is a world-class health care provider, but because of [existing] law, it’s hard for the department to recruit and retain Title 38 medical professionals crucial to maintaining such a first-rate institution,” the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing more than 60,000 VHA employees, says in a statement. “These medical professionals, for example, are not allowed to raise grievances about things like staffing shortages that undermine patient care.”

“Or in situations where the VA fails to provide promotion and advancement opportunities that will attract health care workers to the VA,” AFGE continues. “They’re also not allowed to challenge management violations of pay laws or the VA’s own policies.” 

“Specifically, the bill would make the VA a better place to work by giving employees a say in their work and working conditions through collective bargaining,” AFGE concludes. 

The proposed legislation is H.R. 1948 in the House, with a companion bill S. 771 in the Senate.

NEXT STORY: SBA sidesteps union rights

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