The Department of Veterans Affairs is seeing a surge of applicants applying for open positions as the agency looks to expand its workforce.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Tuesday that the RAISE Act and the PACT Act signed into law this year are giving the VA the recruiting and retention tools it needs to build up its workforce. The PACT Act is expected to bring in about an additional 3.5 million veterans into VA care.
“We need aggressively to hire the people who will deliver the benefits and world-class health care that vets have earned and deserve,” McDonough said.
The VA, meanwhile, is seeing positive signs that it is attracting and retaining the workforce it needs to handle increased demand from veterans.
McDonough said VA saw a net increase of more than 2,000 registered nurses during fiscal 2022, “a big accomplishment during this tight market.” He said VA nurses also intend to stay with the agency at a higher rate than their private-sector counterparts, and that the VA also sees a lower turnover rate for nurses than the private sector.
Meanwhile, McDonough said he’s been “routinely surprised” by the number of applicants the VA is now receiving for its open positions.
Jessica Bonjorni, the chief of human capital management at the Veterans Health Administration, said VHA hired over a record 47,000 new employees in fiscal 2022, despite a tight labor market.
Bonjorni said VHA is seeing “increasing interest” in the number of applicants for clinical provider positions, but said VHA is facing some challenges getting enough interest in entry-level positions, including housekeepers.
The PACT Act removed restrictions on hiring housekeeping aides and has resulted in a record number of housekeeping aides brought on board this calendar year.
“We’re excited to have the authorities we have under PACT [Act] for housekeeping aides because it’s going to open up the applicant pool, and let us reach more potential candidates in the hiring process,” Bonjorni said.
Aaron Lee, the executive director of the Office of Human Capital Services at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said VBA has seen a “drastic increase” in its applications after it developed new ways to advertise open claims processor positions.
Before the PACT Act, Lee said VBA would typically get hundreds of applicants for claims processor positions, but is now getting on average 3,000-5,000 applicants per job announcement.
“It’s a great problem to have. It obviously adds a little bit of time into sorting through the resumes and making sure we’re picking the most qualified applicants, but I’d much rather have that challenge than for us not to have enough candidates,” Lee said.
The VA is also piloting assessment tools to help process an increase in applications.
“The assessment tools will help applicants cut down the time of having to go through a laborious interview or multi-interview process. So we’re able to cut down to that best-qualified list a lot faster, and then our hiring managers have an easier time of making those particular selections,” Lee said.
Lee said his office also piloted a system of open, continuous national job announcements using its direct hire authority.
Lee said the pilot allows VBA to “maintain a steady flow of eligible and available applicants for selection at predetermined time frames.”
Lee said his office has spearheaded a streamlined process for conducting interviews and fingerprinting at job fairs that recently resulted in VBA making 61 job offers in less than one day.
“We’re able to really cut that process down, doing 99% of that work in person onsite,” Lee said.
McDonough said that VBA received 19% more claims this year than last year, but is processing up to 7,900 claims a day, which is “a new floor for us.”
“It used to be that getting over 7,000 claims processed in a day was a good day. Now we have much greater expectations,” McDonough said, adding the VA is also getting more new claims than ever before — up to 1,000 a day.
The VA is holding a “national onboarding surge event” the week of Nov. 14, as part of an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to get candidates who have already accepted job offers to start work sooner, but is also taking a broader approach to fast-track onboarding.
Bonjorni said VHA leading a “tiger team” right now to streamline some of the steps in the onboarding process for clinical providers. She said process engineers also looking at what steps the VA can take to streamline the onboarding of nonclinical hires.
“Do all the positions that we have right now need to take a physical? Probably not. So we had to take a look at that and cut out a bunch of positions, just cut out steps in the process all throughout,” Bonjorni said.
The PACT Act requires the VA to develop a workforce plan for recruiting and retaining human resources professionals.
Gina Grosso, VA’s assistant secretary for human resource administration operations, security and preparedness, said a national rural recruitment and hiring plan also mandated under the PACT Act is on track to be completed by March 31, 2023.
“This legislation provides a broad range of recruiting and retention authorities that will allow the VA to recruit and retain the workforce we need to provide the care and benefits to the nation’s veterans, their caregivers, and survivors,” Grosso said.
Grosso said VA is also “about halfway there” with issuing all its PACT Act workforce policies, and all but one will be done by the end of fiscal 2023.
“Congress gave us a lot of authorities, but until we write the policy on how to use it, we can’t be effective,” Grosso said.
The PACT Act also increases the statutory limit on awards and bonuses to $25,000 without Office of Personnel Management approval, up from $10,000.
The PACT Act also allows the VA to offer recruitment, retention and relocation incentives that are worth up to 50% of an employee’s salary. The legislation allows VA to pay out those incentives upfront in a lump sum.
VA under the legislation can now offer employees up to $100,000 in student loan repayment over the course of their careers — or up to $40,000 per year
Bonjorni said the VHA is also “aggressively marketing” getting employees to apply for a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program limited-time waiver, which has an Oct. 31. deadline.
VHA certified loan forgiveness applications for more than 2,500 employees in October, and for over 26,000 employees since the start of last year.
Bonjorni said VA under the RAISE Act implemented pay raises for 10,000 registered nurses, advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants since the Raise Act became law.
Bonjorni said nurses at the previous pay cap automatically saw an adjustment in their pay.
“Then we went back through and looked at any nurse that was within 10% of that cap, evaluated the market conditions and made appropriate adjustments. Individuals didn’t have to do anything, those were actions processed in the back end by HR,” she said.
Bonjorni said the VA doesn’t yet have data on whether pay raises under the RAISE Act have helped improve retention, but said data will be available about a year out from when the agency implemented the pay raises.
“We’ve just gone through the process of getting those payments out,” but we will be tracking that closely,” Bonjorni said.