VA rethinks pay, benefits for workforce as agency faces high employee turnover

VA is rolling out a 10-point human infrastructure strategy, aimed at helping the agency recruit and retain in-demand workers at a time when the agency is facing...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is rolling out a 10-point human infrastructure plan, aimed at helping the agency recruit and retain in-demand workers at a time when the agency is facing record turnover among health care employees.

The VA is looking to maximize bonus and retention incentives for current employees and make more VA employees eligible for monthly child care subsidy benefits.

The agency is also lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would raise pay caps for registered nurses and physician assistants, and is taking steps to bring new hires onboard more quickly.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday that the agency’s human infrastructure plan will help the agency address its highest turnover rate for nurses in the past 15 years, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the agency’s workforce.

“You’ve had to cover for thousands of colleagues who were sick and unable to work, meaning even longer hours and later nights. And, due to unprecedented demand for frontline workers,  salaries have grown to historic highs in the private sector, but they haven’t moved at VA,” McDonough said Wednesday at a VA medical center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Considering how many agency nurses are eligible to retire, McDonough said the VA will need to hire about 15,000 nurses a year for the next five years. The turnover rate is so high, he said, because private-sector hospitals offer bonuses and retention payments that VA can’t match.

“All of that is unsustainable, and it’s going to mean serious losses if we don’t act soon,” McDonough said.

McDonough said VA expects to enforce its vaccine requirement for health care personnel. Enforcing this requirement, which the Supreme Court upheld last month, will give employees and patients “peace of mind,” he said.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee last week passed the VA Nurse and Physician Assistant Retention and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act, which would increase the salary limit for VA’s advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants from Level Four of the Executive Schedule to Level One.

It would also increase the salary limit from Level Four to Level Two of the Executive Schedule for all other registered nurses.

Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) who introduced the bill, said advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants could make up to $226,300, while other registered nurses would make up $203,700, if the RAISE Act passed. Those positions are currently capped at $176,300 a year.

“Due to laws that put a cap on how much we can pay VA employees, many folks can literally walk across the street and make $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 more than they can at VA,” McDonough said.

The VA is also taking steps to maximize bonuses and retention incentives for high-performing health care employees.

McDonough said Congress allowed VA to waive limits on bonuses for certain work done during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the agency is currently “using that authority to reward employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

The Biden administration has also authorized the VA to pay retention incentives of up to 50% of an employee’s base salary, a 25% increase from previous levels.

“Neither nurses nor anyone else should have to sacrifice pay to serve vets, so these steps are crucial for keeping our people right here where you belong,” McDonough said.

VA is also permanently raising the salary cap for employees who qualify for $500 a month in child care subsidies.

McDonough said the agency will raise the cap to include families who make up to $149,000 a year. That’s up from the previous cap for employees whose families earned less than $89,000 a year.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about doing your jobs well and paying for quality care for your kids,” McDonough said.

VA is also revising qualification standards to recruit nurses and streamline the onboarding process. The agency, more broadly, is “completely redesigning” its national onboarding process, McDonough said.

“When employees leave VA, we need to fill those positions as quickly as possible, or employees like you will have to do even more work at a time when your plates are already overfull,” he said.

McDonough said VA is directing managers to “use all available authorities to establish a new normal at VA, one that maximizes your flexibility to work outside your traditional workspace whenever and wherever possible.”

The VA is also taking steps to increase opportunities for employees to advance through the agency’s ranks.

The National Cemetery Administration is going through a reclassification of the occupational series for cemetery representatives, a change that McDonough said will lead to “increasing opportunities for promotions and raises.”

”This initiative will help us grow future leaders, and we’d love to replicate it across VA, because we want you to grow your careers right here at home,” McDonough said.

The Veterans Health Administration has also set up a VHA REBOOT task force, a “team of employees, for employees,” focused on coming up with recommendations on how to improve work conditions, promote work-life balance, increase scheduling flexibilities and reduce burnout.

The task force, McDonough said, is “an ongoing effort,” but has already developed ideas that include establishing chief wellbeing officers at VA hospitals.

McDonough said the VA is expanding its efforts to ensure its workforce is maximizing federal student loan repayment programs.

VA scholarship programs, he added, helped pay for school for more than 2,300 employees last year. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has paused student loan payments until May.

Federal employees, through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, are eligible to have the balance of their student debt eliminated after 10 years of federal or military service, provided that they have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan.

VA is in the process of hiring a chief diversity officer, and McDonough said the agency is in the process of integrating IDEA principles into hiring, position management, and talent management.

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