The Veterans Affairs Department announced additional exemptions to the President’s temporary hiring freeze last week, which now include benefits and claims processors and some cybersecurity professionals.
VA Secretary David Shulkin updated the list of exemptions from the hiring freeze, which the department first announced in January and covered mostly health care professionals, construction, contracting and project management positions and some burial and memorial service employees.
“I exempt positions in the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals which provide essential veteran’s benefits claims processing and adjudication critical to medical health care and financial stability without which public health and safety would be compromised,” Shulkin wrote in March 13 memo, which Federal News Radio obtained.
Since the President authorized the hiring freeze Jan. 23, the backlog of disability claims has risen from 97,362 to 100,402, according to Senate Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has been a strong advocate of adding additional VA exemptions.
Congress gave VA the authority in its 2017 appropriations package to hire 300 additional claims processors. Shulkin’s memo gives the department the ability to begin hiring those employees, Tester said. VA was one of the only agencies to receive full appropriations for fiscal 2017.
Cybersecurity operations and planning positions at VA are also exempted. The department’s chief of staff will review each individual recruitment before the official hire takes place.
“This exemption is very limited to positions protecting and defending the networks, data and computer assets of the VA,” Shulkin said.
Some law enforcement and criminal investigations positions also received recent exemptions.
Other exemptions include VA rehab counselors and therapists, specialists and attorneys on the Board of Appeals and employees who reimburse community care providers and help administer the VA Choice Programs.
The department can also reallocate existing employees through temporary promotions, noncompetitive reassignments and details to meet VA’s “highest priorities,” the memo said.
“No reallocation may result in the move of an employee from a position that would qualify for an exemption for the hiring freeze to a position that would not qualify for such an exemption,” Shulkin wrote.
The department’s original announcement exempted roughly 90 individual positions. Shulkin’s new memo includes exemptions for more than 125 jobs.
The VA Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction (OALC), along with the Veterans Health Administration, will activate leases and construction projects at 43 locations in 13 states. These exemptions will ensure the department can continue that work.
“I grant exemptions … to ensure that the safety and health standards required by law are met,” Shulkin wrote. “Also included are a number of positions within OALC that provide direct patient care for veteran support (e.g., hearing aid repair) through the Denver Acquisition and Logistics Center.”
It’s unclear just how many vacant positions these new exemptions would cover. Shulkin has previously told members of both the House and Senate VA committees that January exemptions covered 37,000 of the department’s 45,000 vacancies.
The memo also comes after repeated calls from lawmakers asking that the White House or the department itself grant additional exemptions — at the VA and other agencies — from the hiring freeze.
“This announcement is critical for veterans waiting for answers on their disability claims, appeals and seeking care,” Tester said in a statement. “The entire VA, as well as veterans seeking jobs in the federal government, should never have been included in the hiring freeze in the first place.”
About 55 members of Congress wrote to President Donald Trump in January, asking that he exempt the entire department, along with any veterans looking for work.
Tester and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees, respectively, led the charge then, urging the President to consider how the freeze may impact veterans’ health care and backlog of more than 450,000 disability claims.
Trump authorized the temporary freeze in an executive memo Jan. 23, one of his first moves as president. The freeze is in place until the Office of Management and Budget develops a long-term plan to cut the size of the federal workforce through attrition.