The Department of Veterans Affairs has struck an agreement with one of its unions that would allow the agency to expedite the hiring process for certain employees.
The VA earlier this month announced it reached an agreement with the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) on several memorandums of understanding.
One of the agreements will allow the VA to “significantly expedite the hiring process” for NFFE bargaining unit employees.
NFFE General Counsel Jeff Friday said the agreement allows the VA to proceed with the next steps of the hiring process within three days of posting a job announcement, rather than the previous standard of 15 days.
“The number-one issue that our folks we represent at the VA have is workload, a lack of staffing [and] the VA’s inability to get people in the door,” Friday said.
Both the VA and NFFE say the agreement will the agency bring on the workforce it needs under the PACT Act to deliver toxic exposure-related care and benefits to millions of veterans.
“It’s another big increase in workload … especially for those VBA folks. It’s more paperwork and stuff that they have to do,” Friday said.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement that the new agreements with NFFE “provide critical support for VA’s public servants — which, in turn, helps us better serve our nation’s veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.”
“A unionized VA workforce is a strong VA workforce, and we at VA are proud to work with NFFE to continue delivering for vets,” McDonough said.
NFFE represents about 10,000 VA employees, most of them nurses or other VA clinicians. The agency also represents employees within the Veterans Benefits Administration. More than 79% of all VA employees are bargaining unit employees.
Friday said the agreement should allow the VA to shave a few weeks off the hiring process. The VA, he added, has the option to extend the posting period beyond three days if necessary, or reissue a job posting if needed.
“To some extent, the 15-day thing may have been anachronistic or old-timey,” he said. “Now with USA Jobs, you can get an alert on your phone, if you have certain keywords in there, where you should be able to get a text when a job becomes open that you’re interested in.”
NFFE expects the shorter window for job applications won’t prevent interested applicants from applying for jobs. Many job postings on USA Jobs already close after the sites receives a certain number of applications.
“Sometimes the announcements come up on USA Jobs [that] would be open for the first 100 people that apply — and they apply within 24 hours. Friday said the 15-day window was a frustration for both employees and management,” Friday said.
Friday said NFFE considers the shorter application window a worthy tradeoff, if it allows the VA to hire employees more quickly.
“We’re giving something up, in the sense [that] the 15-day notice gives people longer to apply for a job … But the bigger problem for our folks is having enough coworkers to do the job,” he said.
Friday said NFFE members working at VA are sometimes doing the work of two or more employees because of turnover at the VA, and because the agency is not able to fill vacant positions fast enough,
“It’s kind of a self-perpetuating thing — they have trouble hiring, and then people are overworked, and then people leave,” he said.
NFFE officials told Friday that onboarding is taking “a couple of months when it goes well,” and as much as six months when it does not.
Friday estimates that in recent years, the VA has seen about 40,000-50,000 vacant positions.
“I would say it’s as big now as ever,” he said as far as a current estimate on vacant positions.
The MOUs also allow NFFE bargaining unit employees to use an additional 160 hours of unpaid leave related to the birth of a child, adoption or foster care.
That four weeks of unpaid leave is in addition to the 12 weeks of paid parental leave provided to all federal employees under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act.
Friday said the additional leave will give NFFE members a better work-life balance.
The MOUs between VA and NFFEE are just a taste of upcoming negotiations. NFFE expects contract negotiations will run from late 2023 through early 2024.
Friday said NFFE expects to work with the Biden administration on a favorable labor agreement, adding that the VA under this administration restored many of the collective bargaining rights that the Trump administration sought to curtail.
“[They] made us whole for a lot of the wrongs that we had experienced during the Trump administration. We did that and did it quickly.”
As far as what the NFFE has planned for negations, Friday said the union is looking at its option to preserve its current collective bargaining rights well into the future.
“If we get a new administration that was doing to us what was done under Trump again, how can we protect against that?” he said.