VA CIO: ‘Historic’ pay raise coming for IT workforce, as Special Salary Rate goes into effect in July

The Department of Veterans Affairs will implement a long-awaited pay raise for its IT and cybersecurity workforce later this month, to bring employees’ salari...

UPDATE: This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, July 14 to reflect updates from VA’s Office of Information and Technology. The Special Salary Rate for VA’s IT workforce will go into effect Sunday, July 16, and will result in a 17% average pay raise. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs will implement a long-awaited pay raise for its IT and cybersecurity workforce later this month, to bring employees’ salaries closer to what they could earn in the private sector.

VA’s Office of Information and Technology (VA OIT) told employees at a town hall Thursday that the SSR will go into effect on July 16, and will result in a 17% average pay increase for covered employees.

With the SSR in effect, VA OIT employees cannot exceed a $183,500 salary cap. The SSR will expire in September 2027.

The SSR will increase basic pay for nearly all VA OIT employees in 2210 IT management, 0854 computer engineering, and 1550 computer science classified positions at grades GS-5 through GS-15.

Kurt DelBene, VA’s assistant secretary for IT and chief information officer, told Federal News Network the SSR is part of VA OIT’s broader focus to build up its tech workforce and modernize the way it delivers services to veterans.

“[The] SSR fits into that piece of a broader value proposition for employees that we need to make great, if we’re going to get great employees,” DelBene said in an interview. “If you buy the premise of how IT has to change … then the value proposition to employees is that we are building skilled people who know how to do that. And as part of that, the deal has to be good.”

The VA will be the first department to roll out the new pay model for its tech workforce, and has been advocating for the SSR to go into effect governmentwide since late 2022.

The VA led a coalition of agencies last year asking the Office of Personnel Management to roll out a new SSR for cyber and IT hires across the federal workforce. That coalition of agencies includes the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department and the Energy Department.

Plans to implement the SSR across the entire federal government, however, remain on hold.

VA expects the Special Salary Rate will significantly raise the salaries of more than 7,000 VA OIT personnel nationwide.

The VA previewed some elements of its IT modernization strategy at its tech expo in Palo Alto, California last week. That strategy includes improving the experience of its IT workforce.

“We’re going to be making this bigger investment in our systems. That’s a ripe time when we need to actually marry it with dollars for our employees’ salaries that are increased as well,” DelBene said. “And so, as the PACT Act came along, it gave us that opportunity to be able to do things at a faster pace, while OPM and the rest of the government figures out, for the broader initiative, what they want to do.”

DelBene, in a recent memo to VA OIT personnel, said the department is launching the SSR in the coming weeks to “close the gap between market salary rates and those found within the federal government for technology and cybersecurity roles.”

“While we still have more work ahead of us to create the best employee experience for our workforce and further cement VA as the leading tech organization within the federal government, the Special Salary Rate is a critical step toward that,” DelBene wrote in the memo.

DelBene wrote that the SSR’s upcoming rollout is a “historic moment” for the VA, and that the special rates will give OIT’s workforce salaries that can compete with private sector pay.

“Now more than ever, the nation’s veterans and our customers across the department need us to provide the high-quality information technology products and services they deserve,” DelBene wrote. “Delivering on our sacred obligation to veterans means more than just what we develop; it’s also about the people behind our mission — you. Honoring the dedication you bring to the job every day was a primary reason we led the effort to compensate you in line with your private sector peers.”

The VA is implementing the SSR by using its new authority to establish special rates under the PACT Act.

The PACT Act, signed into law last summer, expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service.

The legislation also gives the VA new workforce recruitment and retention authorities — which is key, considering how the governmentwide rollout of the SSR has stalled.

Given an uncertain budget environment, multiple sources have told Federal News Network that OPM has placed the SSR on hold, pending additional implementation guidance.

The Biden administration struck a deal with House Republicans in May to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a government default. As part of this deal, agencies must keep non-defense discretionary spending roughly flat in fiscal 2024, and will only see a 1% increase in non-defense spending in fiscal 2025.

That spending deal gives agencies little room to implement the SSR for the IT workforce. DelBene, however, told Federal News Network in May that VA prioritized the SSR in its fiscal 2024 budget request.

“There’s a lot of complexities, if you think about moving the entire federal government to an SSR for tech positions. And I think we saw the special accommodations of the PACT Act, [and] concluded that this is a way for us to fast-track that for VA, in particular,” DelBene said.

If adopted by all agencies, the SSR would increase pay for about 100,000 federal IT and cyber employees governmentwide.

DelBene said the VA still supports OPM trying to implement the SSR governmentwide, and expects VA’s rollout of the special rates will set an example for the rest of the federal government.

“I think other agencies will see it, and my hope is that they’ll follow suit,” he said. “It’s a tough time, though, in terms of budgets and everything, and that’ll have to weigh into it as well.”

The SSR isn’t intended to match what some of the biggest tech companies are able to pay their employees, but will at least close the gap for IT workers considering a career in government service.

DelBene said an interagency study that compared private-sector and public-sector pay for in-demand tech workers became the foundation for the SSR.

According to the VA, tech workers on average are paid about 60% more in the private sector compared to pay for similar roles in the federal government.

“We didn’t just pull these numbers out of a hat and say, ‘Oh, we’d like to pay our employees more,’” DelBene said. “We figured out, at each layer, or at each stage in your career progression, what are the relative salaries? And so, I think, the first and foremost thing we did is build the case for what we need to do to have competitive pay.”

VA OIT expects the SSR will help fill some of its vacant positions. DelBene said last December said VA OIT was recruiting laid-off tech workers to fill about 1,000 department vacancies — especially in software development, product management and cybersecurity positions.

“We’ve made really good progress, we’ve still got a ways to go there … When you’re talking about an organization as large as OIT, there’s always a background demand for new employees,” DelBene said.

VA OIT is also developing career progression roadmaps meant to help the IT workforce understand opportunities for longer-term advancement.

“This is not a sprint. You do this, and you transform your hiring, and you keep doing it, and doing it. And at the same time, you want to create the tools internally, so that employees that are already in place, that have already joined this mission, see that career opportunity for them as well,” DelBene said.

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