Unions battle bipartisan Senate bill to make firing Vets Affairs Dept. workers easier

WASHINGTON—Unions representing federal workers are battling yet another congressional plan – a bill advanced by a bipartisan set of senators – to make firing workers easier at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

One fear? That if the Republican-run Congress gives VA managers more firing leeway, without having to show cause for axing workers, it could take the next step and extend that lack of due process to the rest of the federal government’s two million workers nationwide.

The legislation, by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and two others, has backing from VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, a non-partisan MD whom Republican President Donald Trump named to the Cabinet post.

The measure, which the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee discussed at a May 17 hearing, would “protect whistleblowers,” Rubio claims. But it “would also give the VA Secretary the power to fire bad employees. People caught, for example, watching pornography while on the job, et cetera,” the Floridian adds.

Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox, a retired VA psychiatric nurse, and Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a Machinists sector, disagree with Rubio. Cox testified at the hearing. Both predict Rubio’s bill would lead to “political witch hunts” against workers by stripping them of due process protections. The GOP-run House passed similar legislation which is even worse, Cox says.

Rubio’s bill “would allow mass firings of veterans’ caregivers and other VA workers by Trump’s political appointees – a dangerous precedent at a time when public officials like FBI Director James Comey are being summarily fired for reasons that are questionable at best,” AFGE, which is the largest federal worker union, and the largest VA worker union, said.

It would give VA managers “more opportunities to throw rank-and-file workers under the bus,” Cox adds.

“Trampling on the rights of honest, hardworking public sector employees is not the solution to holding bad employees accountable for their actions,” Cox explained. “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.”

Erwin agreed and said Rubio’s bill would actually discourage whistleblowers.

“Honest VA employees will be open to intimidation and will be deterred from coming forward as whistleblowers,” he explained. “Misconduct claims require a slightly higher burden of evidence because such claims can be charged indiscriminately, and can be corroborated by

a sole witness. Therefore, a higher degree of credibility and evidence is essential. The ‘substantial evidence’ standard is too low and is fundamentally unfair to VA employees.”

In a fact sheet, AFGE elaborated how Rubio’s measure fails to protect workers. It:

• Lowers the burden of proof required to terminate a worker from “a preponderance of the evidence” to “substantial evidence.” That means the VA could fire workers “even if most of the evidence is in the employee’s favor,” AFGE said.

• Sets “unworkable timeframes for appealing disciplinary actions to the (federal) Merit Systems Protection Board or grieving personnel actions through” union contracts.

• Bans MSPB administrative law judges from cutting punishments VA recommends for a worker, even if the judges “view the punishment as unjust or disproportionate to the offense.”

• Supersedes union contract provisions, thus “threatening the integrity of the entire collective bargaining process.”

• “Gives senior executives more favorable venues for appealing disciplinary actions than the rank-and-file employees they manage.”

Rank-and-file whistleblowers, whom AFGE defended after management retaliation, exposed the VA scandal several years ago. It led to prior legislation and, now, Rubio’s measure. The agency’s senior executives perpetrated the scandal by covering up lack of timely care of the nation’s veterans.

“We agree that employees who fail to serve our veterans with the dignity and respect they deserve should be fired, but not when it means ruining the careers and lives of other employees,” Cox said. “Many of the employees who blew the whistle on waitlists and other abuses at the VA faced retaliation for coming forward, but they were protected by civil service rights and their contract. This legislation would eliminate the only true protections they have.

All this legislation does is hand more power to the VA executives and political appointees who failed our veterans in the first place…Why are we rewarding incompetent leaders?”

And it’s not just VA workers who are in danger, but every federal worker, Cox warned: “Arming political appointees with the power to fire career civil servants at will is a dangerous precedent at a time when President Trump is firing public servants like FBI Director James Comey and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for what appear to be political motives.

“All public-sector employees should be able to do their jobs without fear of political reprisal – whether they’re a VA nurse reporting on mistreatment of veterans, an EPA scientist researching climate change, or the FBI director probing Russia’s interference with our election. Now more than ever, we need strong civil service protections, strong due process rights, and strong union contracts to protect the government workers who serve and protect us.”

Shulkin, however, wants Rubio’s bill. “I wish I could tell you I have the tools to do the right thing, to be able to remove those (bad) employees. I do not,” he previously testified about miscreants. “Unfortunately, I need a new set of tools if I’m going to be held accountable for turning this system around and doing what we all want to do to serve veterans. So I thank you for introducing this bill. I think it’s necessary.” Shulkin also stated Rubio’s measure “allows due process” for the VA workers, through contracts and the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Source: PAI