VA ends mandatory overtime for most employees processing benefits claims

VBA has delivered record-breaking level of benefits to veterans for the past three years, and is on track to break yet another record this year.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is ending mandatory overtime for most employees who process benefits claims.

The Veterans Benefits Administration is shifting to a system of mostly voluntary overtime where employees can work for a maximum of 20 hours of overtime each month.

VA Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told reporters VBA has relied on mandatory overtime for the past seven years to keep up with its increasing workload.

“We’re producing and delivering veteran benefits at a very high level. But as I’ve said before, I have never thought that mandatory overtime is a sustainable operating practice,” Jacobs told reporters in a call Tuesday.

VBA has delivered record-breaking level of benefits to veterans for the past three years, and is on track to break yet another record by the end of this fiscal year.

The agency processed 1.98 million disability benefits claims from veterans and their survivors in fiscal 2023 — a nearly 16% increase from the year prior. VBA issued $163 billion in total benefits in FY 2023.

VBA is seeing a higher volume of claims because of the PACT Act, a 2022 law that expanded VA health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service. VBA has granted more than 1 million benefits claims under the PACT Act.

Jacobs said VBA is on pace to process 30% more claims in fiscal 2024 compared to last year. The agency, so far this year, has awarded $112 billion to veterans and their survivors in compensation and benefits.

VBA currently has a claims backlog of about 277,000 — nearly 30% of its total inventory of claims.

VBA is also growing its workforce to keep up with demand.  Since October 2022, VBA has grown its workforce by nearly 33%, to more than 34,000 employees.

“Our growing workforce has gone above and beyond to deliver these earned benefits, and we remain focused on achieving our primary mission, which is delivering timely, high-quality and equitable decisions for veterans and their survivors with a world-class customer experience,” Jacobs said. “At the same time, we’re laser-focused on ensuring that our workforce can achieve these outcomes sustainably in the long term.”

Jacobs said VBA ended mandatory overtime, based on feedback from VBA employees and his own “personal concern about the ability of our workforce to sustainably deliver benefits at the scale that we have been doing for a very long time.”

“My goal is to leave this organization better than I found it. And I was concerned that a continuation of mandatory overtime perpetually would be very problematic for our ability to continue delivering at the levels we have been,” he said.

Jacobs said VBA plans to keep growing its workforce until it reaches 36,000 employees — but added that the agency is “constantly evaluating our numbers.”

“We are very focused on evaluating incoming receipts, the total production, and then making sure we revalidate that our assumptions and our goals remain accurate,” he said.

The Veterans Health Administration is becoming more selective with its hiring, after it saw record workforce growth last year. The agency is also seeing higher workforce retention.

VA is also looking to shed about 10,000 jobs in its fiscal 2025 budget request. Most of those job cuts would come from VHA. VA expects to achieve the reduced headcount through attrition.

Jacobs, however, said VBA has the funding it needs to continue workforce growth.

“We are fine from a discretionary perspective. We have the funds that we need to deliver the historical level of benefits that we have been delivering,” he said.

Jacobs said VBA is also seeing higher retention rates for its employees, compared to its six-year average retention rate. He added that as VBA continues to hire, employees have had opportunities to advance into higher positions.

“As we’ve increased hiring, that hiring has both come from employees outside of VBA, but also employees within VBA,” Jacobs said. “As we’ve provided more opportunities, more employees have chosen to stay — in addition to the mission.”

VBA will keep mandatory overtime in place for some employees. That includes workers who process claims for military sexual trauma, radiation exposure, Camp Lejeune contaminated water and pensions.

“We have a workload that requires more timely decisions, and so we want to focus on continuing to bring that work, the total inventory down to improve the timeliness,” Jacobs said.

“As we’re training those new employees, we’re going to continue the mandatory overtime,” he added. “We will assess, as we watch our work in those areas progress, if and when we can make changes to that policy, and transition them to voluntary overtime. But right now, our assessment is that we need to maintain that policy, to continue making improvements for veterans who have filed those claims.”

VBA held a national quality stand-down and wellness day last month, with a focus on addressing burnout and the mental health of its workforce, as well as improving overall work quality. Jacobs said the agency is also rethinking training for its new employees and “refresher” courses for existing staff.

“Investing in our employees matters and can ultimately yield significant returns for our veterans and survivors. Because we know what’s good for our employees is good for those we serve. This stand-down was a necessary part of our effort to improve the accuracy of our claims decisions and support our employees. But it’s certainly not going to stop there,” he said.

VBA expects its employees to work in the office at least five days per two-week pay period, adhering to a VA-wide policy and the Biden administration’s goal of bringing federal employees back to the office at least 50% of the time.

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