Veterans Affairs officials say they are hiring new staffers at a blistering pace as they continue to respond to the ongoing coronavirus threat, but department critics say their opposition to hazard pay for those workers undercuts the positive news.
Earlier this week, VA officials announced that they hired 9,338 new medical staffers — including 2,147 registered nurses — during the month of April, a “record pace to bolster staff at (VA) facilities.”
Department leadership has faced scrutiny from lawmakers in recent months for the slow pace of hirings, resulting in nearly 50,000 vacancies across the 400,000-plus VA workforce.
But following the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, VA officials made an aggressive push to retired medical personnel and workers laid off from private-sector medical centers to quickly fill those posts.
More than 1 million veterans reported being jobless in April as the national unemployment rate 14.7 percent.
Some of the new hires are temporary employees, but in a statement department leaders said the moves have provided “a stable staffing situation in the vast majority of VA locations nearly two months into the national emergency.”
But the new hiring announcement this week came at nearly the same time that officials from the American Federation of Government Employees (which represents about 260,000 VA employees) blasted department leaders for opposing efforts to provide hazard pay bonuses to federal medical employees, despite the health risks they face battling the virus.
In a statement to ABC News this week, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that hazard pay “is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA.”
VA and union officials have sparred in recent weeks over the availability of personal protective equipment across the department’s health care system, with administration officials insisting supplies have been adequate and workers groups reporting widespread shortages and rationing.
AFGE National President Everett Kelley called VA’s stance against the hazard pay “a slap in the face of employees” currently serving veterans.
“It is preposterous to say that front-line VA employees are not due hazard pay because the VA has finally begun to provide employees with the protections they’ve been asking for since the beginning of this pandemic,” he said in a statement.
“VA failed to stop the hazard in many places. Compounded with the lack of PPE, they told employees to continue coming to work after known exposures. … Until the VA fixes their PPE and leave issues, they cannot mitigate the hazard sufficiently.”
As of Thursday morning, more than 1,367 VA staffers have tested positive for coronavirus in the last two months, including 30 who eventually died from complications. The VA medical center in East Orange, N.J., has lost six workers to the virus.
Across the VA system, the number of active coronavirus cases declined in recent days even as the number of patient fatalities has continued to rise.
Teams of volunteers from the veteran-lead disaster response group are helping staff the overwhelmed Kayenta Health Center in the heart of Navajo Nation.
VA officials reported 2,176 active patient cases from a total of 11,699 positive tests over the last two months. One week ago, the number of active cases was almost 3,000, which translates to a 25 percent decrease in seven days.
But the number of VA deaths saw a similar increase over that same time frame. On May 7, VA reported that 810 patients had died from complications related to the virus. One week later, that number had jumped to 972, an increase of more than 20 percent.
So far, 104 different VA medical centers have seen at least one death related to the virus.