VA tapping into special pay authorities to make in-demand hires

The VA says it's becoming a more attractive employer for in-demand occupations, like IT workers and police officers, after tapping into new special pay authorit...

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it’s becoming a more attractive employer for in-demand occupations, like IT workers and police officers, after tapping into new special pay authorities that are unique to the department.

The VA under the PACT Act — which expands VA health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service — now has two pay incentives not seen elsewhere in the federal government.

The VA now can offer a critical skill incentive (CSI) to employees with skills that are in high demand, or in short supply at the department, and serve a “mission-related need.”

The department this summer also implemented a Special Salary Rate for IT and cybersecurity employees.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters on Wednesday that the VA is focused on managing the critical skills incentive and SSR carefully, “because we are showing a pathway forward for the rest of the federal government.”

“We have these authorities in a way that many of our federal agency partners do not, and would like to have it. So, we want to make sure we manage these tools,” McDonough said in a press conference.

VA data shows nearly 32,400 employees received higher pay through the critical skill incentive between Aug. 19 and Oct. 31. A majority of the CSI awards went to HR specialists and assistants, housekeeping aides, security personnel, and police officers.

After years of seeing an annual net loss of VA police officers, the department saw a 7% growth in the total headcount of VA police officers.

A small percentage of those critical skill incentives, however, went to career senior executives at VA headquarters. The VA announced in September that it canceled nearly $10 million of these bonuses to VA executives who were found to be ineligible for the awards.

McDonough said the VA was “a little overzealous on the execution of the critical skills incentive.”

“We uniquely have the CSI. Nobody else in the federal system has it. So we want to be able to show that we can use that, not as an end-of-the-year bonus, but rather as an incentive for critical skills that are in short supply,” he added.

The VA is also offering a major pay increase to IT and cyber professionals, compared to what they might earn at other federal agencies.

The VA in July implemented a Special Salary Rate for IT and cybersecurity employees.

The SSR amounts to a $18,000 – or 17% – pay increase on average for eligible employees.

McDonough said the SSR is a “big help to us, and we are more competitive as a result.”

“We’re really grateful to OPM for having given us the opportunity to test these special salary rates for our particular classes of employees,” McDonough said.

The VA employed 7,696 total IT specialists in FY 2023, and is on track to meet its goal of getting to 7,782 total IT workers. The latest data from VA’s workforce dashboard shows a more than 80% retention rate after two years on the job.

McDonough said the VA has been making “aggressive” outreach to tech hubs in Silicon Valley and Seattle to recruit in-demand IT talent and will continue to focus on tech hiring, following President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on AI in government.

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.

“We do not have to pay dollar-for-dollar. People come to work at VA, including our technologists, because they’re drawn by the mission,” McDonough said. “So we just need an increment more funding in salary to supplement that mission.”

McDonough said the VA, has “a lot of flexibility for SSRs” across the department.

“The way I’ve seen this is we have to perform, in the hopes that we can get additional authority. But I also take to heart the fact that we have to perform and show to Congress how serious we are about this,” he added.

VBA continues mandatory overtime, anticipates surge in claims backlog

The VA is continuing to aggressively hire new employees to process disability benefits claims for veterans.

The Veterans Benefits Administration, several times this year, processed more than 9,000 claims a day this year – and recently hit a day where it processed more than 10,000 claims in a single day.

Despite the record output, VBA expects to see a surge in its claims backlog next year, given a significant increase in claims submitted under the PACT Act.

VA anticipates the claims backlog will grow next year, due to the record number of claims it received in August and September.

William Clark Sr., VBA’s deputy under secretary for field operations, said VBA’s current backlog is about 319,000 claims. But next year, the VA anticipates the backlog will peak at 450,000 to 700,000 claims.

“This is not a setback, but a reflection of the trust and reliance our veterans placed on us,” Clark said. “Our plans are robust and responsive, we will not only maintain our current momentum, but accelerate it, ensuring that every veteran receives the benefits they have earned.”

VBA is also managing its caseload by implementing mandatory overtime. Clark said most VBA employees are expected to complete 20 hours of mandatory overtime each month.

“I don’t like to ask our employees to work mandatory overtime. But l like less to have veterans waiting,” he said.

Clark said VBA has two “respite periods” – four weeks during the summer, and four weeks in December and January – where employees are exempt from mandatory overtime requirements.

VBA employees with disabilities, Clark added, are also exempt from the mandatory overtime requirements.

Clark said VBA first implemented mandatory overtime about 18 months ago, and has been “on and off as needed.”

“We are sustaining our hiring. We are training, and we are producing at unprecedented levels,” Clark said.

McDonough said the VA is looking to work through a historic level of claims through continued hiring, training and rolling out additional automated decision support tools.

“We have heard from the workforce, and from our union partners, that the mandatory overtime is demanding,” McDonough said.

VBA is continuing to offer maximum telework to its field employees.  Under the arrangement, VBA employees must work in the office a minimum of two days per two-week pay period but can work remotely the rest of the time.

McDonough said maximum telework for VBA employees in one of the ways the department “has been able to manage this very high rate of performance.”

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