After years of tense negotiations, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the largest federal employee union are a step closer to solidifying their master bargaining agreement.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 291,000 VA employees, announced Thursday that it had struck a deal on a tentative agreement with the department.
If approved, the agreement would make several changes to the union contract, largely aiming to expedite the VA’s hiring process as the department prepares to staff up amid a rapidly increasing workload.
“For years our union has highlighted the danger of leaving tens of thousands of health care positions vacant, and we are hopeful this new agreement will help address this issue that is critical to both veterans and the VA workforce,” AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC) President and chief negotiator Alma Lee said in a statement.
Since contract negotiations reopened in December 2017, the two negotiating parties have struggled for years to reach a deal to amend the current collective bargaining contract, which dates back to 2011.
VA officials said the agreement, if approved, would help the department hire more quickly, better retain employees and add staff to implement the PACT Act.
“This tentative agreement is a great step forward that will help us hire, support, retain and onboard VA’s great public servants — which, in turn, will help us better serve our nation’s veterans,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Friday. “A unionized VA workforce is a strong VA workforce.”
More than 79% of VA’s employees are union members, the department said.
“It seems like we’re getting back on the right track,” AFGE NVAC National Representative Colin Barrett, a member of the union’s negotiating team, said in an interview. “It’ll give more stability.”
The overarching goal of the contract changes in the tentative agreement is to reduce the time to hire, and address staffing shortages in the VA workforce.
“I think it became a goal of the secretary after the PACT Act when they realized they were going to need to hire all these additional people to process PACT Act claims, and all the new veterans that are going to be receiving care,” Barrett said. “There’s going to need to be a lot more staff at the VA, which has been understaffed for several years now.”
Years prior to the latest agreement, contract negotiations effectively came to a standstill during the Trump administration with a 2020 decision from the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which made cuts to official time and other provisions favoring management.
After NVAC members chose not to ratify the decision, negotiations remained on hold until a July 2021 settlement with AFGE, in which VA agreed to restore official time for its health care workforce and remove other provisions from the 2020 decision.
In early 2022, VA and AFGE returned to the bargaining table, reopening just a few articles of the overall contract for negotiations.
An arbitration decision in March may have led negotiators to reach an agreement more quickly.
The March 9 ruling, in favor of AFGE, pushed VA officials to stop negotiating “in bad faith.” The decision came after the union filed a national grievance claiming that VA negotiators had violated the established ground rules by attempting to negotiate provisions outside the set scope of the contract negotiations.
The arbitrator’s decision “definitely seemed like it changed the tenor,” Barrett said.