VA reviewing 4,000 positions at risk of pay downgrade

VA positions under review include a mix of white-collar General Schedule (GS) and blue-collar Wage Grade (WG) positions.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is reviewing more than 4,000 positions at risk of a downgrade in their respective pay scales.

The six VA positions under review include a mix of white-collar General Schedule (GS) and blue-collar Wage Grade (WG) positions.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) estimates about 56% of VA employees in these 4,000 positions are veterans. Some of the positions under review cover VA employees who make less than $20 an hour.

The positions the VA is reviewing cover all 18 Veterans Integrated Services Networks (VISNs). More than 1,700 positions under review are located in the Veterans Health Administration’s Finance Revenue Operations and Procurement and Logistics Office.

AFGE says affected employees have received notices in the mail about the consistency reviews. But Thomas Dargon, supervisory attorney for AFGE’s National VA Council, said the union hasn’t received notice from the VA yet about any imminent downgrades.

However, if the VA decides to downgrade any of these positions, Dargon said the department will face an even harder time filling these positions.

“The bell’s already been rung here. I’ve seen the letters that have gone out to impacted employees, and VA doesn’t have a lot of answers to the questions they’re asking,” Dargon said.

The VA put a moratorium on downgrading employee positions in 2012, allowing the department to revise a national handbook, computer software and other administrative tasks to ensure it classified employees fairly and consistently.

The VA, however, ended that moratorium earlier this year, and is conducting “consistency reviews” on six of its occupations, at the direction of the Office of Personnel Management.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes told Federal News Network in a statement that OPM directed the VA to conduct agency-wide consistency reviews of these six occupations, after VA employees appealed the classification of their positions to OPM.

OPM, following a classification oversight review of VA in spring 2023, determined that two positions, industrial hygienist GS-0690-12 and purchasing agent (prosthetics) GS-1105-06, were not properly classified at the correct grade level.

VA, in a memo obtained by Federal News Network, said its Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, “is working to strengthen consistency and oversight of classification determinations across the department by taking action to ensure employees are in appropriately and consistently classified positions, reduce geographical and organizational pay disparities and decrease hiring times.”

The VA is conducting consistency reviews on the following positions:

  • File Clerk (GS-0305-05 and above)
  • Financial Accounts Assistant (GS-503-all grades)
  • Industrial Hygienist (GS-0690-12 and above)
  • Purchasing Agent (OA) (GS-1105-07 and above)
  • Housekeeping Aid (WG-3 and above)
  • Boiler Plant Operator (WG-5402-10 and above)

Reviews of these occupations will occur in two phases. The first phase of reviews began on March 1 and will conclude on April 26. The department will start a second phase on April 29, and complete the reviews by May 1. VA expects to submit all its reviews to OPM by May 1.

“VHA Consolidated Classification Units will be required to initiate a consistency review process, which will require the identification of [position descriptions] in need of review. [Position descriptions] determined not properly classified will be sunset through attrition and positions impacted will be recruited at the appropriate grade levels, as applicable,” the VA memo states.

Once VA conducts its consistency reviews, it will provide reports back to OPM on whether their internal findings demonstrated that those positions are properly classified as compared to OPM standards.

“From there, I suspect some decision will be made,” Dargon said. “AFGE has not been notified of any imminent downgrade at this point, but I do not suspect the consistency reviews to result in employees being upgraded.”

Dargon said AFGE “does not support any downgrade whatsoever, and that “there is already a significant pay disparity between the public sector and the private sector.”

“VA has a notoriously difficult time not only recruiting, but retaining employees, and downgrading these positions is not going to make it any easier to fill them. And it is not going to bolster morale in the workplace,” Dargon said.

Hayes told Federal News Network that the VA issued a letter temporarily suspending changes to lower grade actions on June 29, 2012. Hayes said OPM assessed VA’s classification process in March 2023, and in September 2023, “determined there were no barriers prohibiting VA from conducting the reviews.”

VA, he added, expects to complete its consistency reviews of these positions by May 31.

“Should the reviews conclude that any positions were improperly classified, VA will consider all potential options to correct this misclassification,” Hayes said. “VA will do all we can to mitigate any potential adverse impact to our current employees. VA is committed to partnering with OPM to update classification standards and ensure they reflect the work done at VA and across the federal government.”

According to slides obtained by Federal News Network from a VA briefing presentation, VHA directed its Workforce Management and Consulting Office to cancel any VHA job opportunity announcements (JOAs) for occupations and grades that are subject to the consistency reviews.

As part of the consistency reviews, VHA classifiers will take a closer look at the qualifications required to perform the work for each occupation, and whether the agency has properly applied OPM’s classification or job-grading standards.

Classifiers cannot compare these six positions to other VA jobs or positions, consider any qualifications the employee has that are not required to perform the job, or account for how well an employee performs the work or the amount of work the employee performs.

“The goal of a classification consistency review is to ensure positions are classified in compliance with OPM classification standards and graded consistently VHA-wide,” the presentation slides state.

VHA is outlining “mitigation strategies” for pay-related staffing challenges. They include supplementing the base pay of these six positions with recruitment and retention incentives — such as critical skills incentives and special salary rates available under the toxic-exposure PACT Act.

“I can appreciate that the HR community at VA is trying to create a soft landing for employees who may be impacted by these downgrades through various recruitment and retention incentives, or ‘mitigation strategies,’ as they call them. But that’s not good enough, Dargon said. “There’s no reason to downgrade these employees, to make these positions harder to fill than they already are.”

Under Secretary for Heath Shereef Elnahal included housekeepers as part of a “Big Seven” list of occupations outlined in the VHA’s top hiring priorities in 2023. Those “Big Seven” positions cover VHA jobs that have a direct impact on patient care — and include physicians, nurses, licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants and food service workers.

Dargon warned that any potential reduction in pay for housekeepers would “be felt very quickly and sharply by folks in that field.” He said VA housekeepers in Pittsburgh, for example, are currently making about $16 an hour.

“These jobs are difficult to fill, and it’s difficult to retain workers,” Dargon said. “We have people who have military backgrounds themselves, who are veterans coming back to the VA, continue giving back, who believe in the mission, who are making just over $15, $16, $17 an hour — and you’ve got VA considering a downgrade.”

Dargon said the VA, by sending these letters to impacted employees, puts them in a position of “feeling undervalued or not seen.”

“Housekeeping aids are very much the backbone of health care institutions. You do not need to be a nurse or a doctor to be considered a vitally important part of the healthcare system that is VA,” he said. “Telling those employees who are working, in some instances, in really difficult environments, every hour of the day, to keep the VA clean and safe, that their position is actually compensated too highly — I can’t imagine what that feels like.”

Dargon said that if VA were to downgrade any of these occupations, it would probably lead to the department contracting out more of this work, “because the positions have become so unattractive through pay or other working conditions.”

VA saw record hiring last year, but is now looking to manage the size of its largest-ever health care workforce.

VA in its fiscal 2025 budget request plans to reduce its total workforce headcount by 10,000 positions. Most of the workforce reduction would come from VHA.

VHA Chief Financial Officer Laura Duke told reporters last month that the workforce reduction is necessary, because the agency far exceeded its hiring goals last year, and because it’s seeing higher-than-expected retention rates.

VHA earlier this year rescinded some temporary and final job offers to prospective hires. But the agency later issued a memo, telling leadership and HR officials to only rescind job offers as an “action of last resort.”

AFGE and VA finalized a new labor agreement last August, updating the terms of their labor contract for the first time in more than a decade.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough, at the signing ceremony, said the new contract would help with “easing the process by which we can fill vacancies,” and will allow the department to make new hires more quickly.

Dargon, however, said recent events suggest the VA is no longer making an effective pitch to prospective hires.

“I was on the negotiating team for the master agreement, and sat at the bargaining table with department officials who insisted that the reason they could not quickly hire employees was because of the provisions in the collective bargaining agreement — that it took too long that these were hurdles or impediments to quick hiring. We knew that was never the case, but we agreed to certain revisions in our contract to allow for more streamlined hiring procedures,” Dargon said. “Now they’re telling us they’ve hired too many people, maybe they’re not going to hire as quickly, they’re not going to fill vacancies through attrition. And now we’re looking at existing positions, and the idea of downgrading them.”

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