VA ‘aggressively’ using workforce retention tools — with more coming soon

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it’s putting new recruitment and retention incentives to effective use, and that they’ve helped the department far exceed its recent hiring goals.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters on Wednesday that the VA has used a “whole range of tools” to boost recruitment and retention, and said the department plans to soon unveil additional tools to continue with this momentum.

“We have more tools that we’ll be announcing soon on this, because this is a profoundly important issue,” McDonough said.

McDonough, during a monthly press conference, said the department has been “aggressive across the enterprise in the use of existing authorities.”

Those include critical skills incentives under the toxic-exposure PACT Act. McDonough said the VA has used the critical skills incentives about 5,000 times across the department so far.

“Those are specific incentives for employees with a skill demonstrated to be in shortage in each individual market. So we are using those aggressively,” McDonough said.

The VA under the PACT Act also has the authority to set Special Salary Rates (SSRs) for non-medical positions that fall under Title 5. VA’s Office of Information and Technology (VA OIT) currently has an SSR that has led to a 17% average pay raise for its IT and cybersecurity employees.

McDonough said its new critical pay position authority is still under review for use.

The VA, he added, is talking with managers about how to use these incentives, and gathering feedback from employees who benefit from them. He also said the VA is “constantly auditing how they’re being used.”

McDonough said VA leadership was briefed Friday on “watch-out-fors” with the use of those incentives.  That includes the VA learning from the “overzealousness” of awarding nearly $10 million worth of critical skills incentives to VA career executives.

The VA announced last month it is recouping those bonuses over concerns that the awards went to more executives than intended.

“That has been a very difficult experience for our leaders. I’ve apologized personally to them for the way that I have handled those, and that is also part of our learning experience in this,” McDonough said.

“We’re going to institute these tools with care, and we’re going to constantly watch how we’re doing it,” he added.

The Veterans Health Administration far exceeded its hiring goals for fiscal 2023, and is retaining health care workers at levels it hasn’t seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We feel quite strongly that was a successful year of hiring,” McDonough said. He added that VHA’s REBOOT task force, focused on reducing clinician burnout, contributed to VHA seeing improved retention during its FY 2023 hiring surge.

“We always made the point that the best hiring strategies begin with proven retention strategies. And our retention strategy was built in large measure – not entirely, but in large measure – on the REBOOT task force,” McDonough said.

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