Turnover rates among Veterans Affairs staffers have risen slightly in recent years, and officials worry that could increase dramatically if Congress doesn’t help ease the burden of bringing new candidates into the department’s workforce.

“We are continuing to see a bit of concern,” said Jessica Bonjorni, chief of the Veterans Health Administration’s human capital management office, during a hearing on department staffing issues before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday.

“Normally at this time in the fiscal year we would have seen growth in our workforce of about 1.5 to 2%. But right now, we’re flat. And so we are trending behind because it’s becoming more difficult to find people out there for certain occupations.”

The department employs more than 400,000 employees across its health care, benefits and memorial services operations. In a typical year, about 9.6% of that workforce — around 40,000 individuals — leaves due to retirement, firings or leaving for new jobs elsewhere.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic that figure has risen slightly, putting several thousand more positions in flux, VA management officials said. While officials emphasized to lawmakers that the issue isn’t a major problem yet, they also said they want to find fixes before it becomes one.

Bonjorni said some of the problems stem not from any VA-specific issues but instead from shortages across the U.S. for in-demand specialties.

“Nursing turnover is one area … where we’re seeing increasing turnover,” she told lawmakers. “Medical technologists and health techs, we’re having some challenges there too.”

But other staffing vacancies are increasing among entry-level posts in areas such as food service and housekeeping duties. Bonjorni said officials are looking into whether pandemic burnout could be playing a factor in hiring and retention for those jobs, and expect to issue a report on those findings in coming weeks.

The department also is pushing lawmakers to provide authorities for better pay, expanded benefits and relaxed hiring requirements to help replace those individuals more quickly.

Expedited hiring processes were approved as part of pandemic response, but those authorities are set to expire later in 2022. VA officials want to see them made permanent, saying that too often the regulations surrounding the hiring of new federal workers is overly cumbersome.

But members of the committee have concerns about permanently loosening those hiring procedures. While individuals can start working before things like fingerprinting and credentialing checks are completed, waiting too long to complete those tasks could cause more serious workforce issues down the line.

“It is not difficult to imagine the worst case scenario if those are not completed in a timely manner, VA could end up employing unqualified, clinically incompetent individuals or individuals with criminal backgrounds,” said committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-California.

“These are people who would be delivering health care to our veterans while having access to controlled substances and veterans’ sensitive health information. And those risks would absolutely have to be mitigated before I could support changing the existing law.”

VA officials said they’ll work with members of Congress in coming weeks to find ways to address those concerns while still speeding up the process.

“Anything that we can do to extend those authorities would be much appreciated,” said Gina Grosso, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources operations. “Our ability to have less regulation over hiring, less regulation over caps on retention authorities, and less restrictions on how we pay awards and bonuses will help us be more competitive with the private sector.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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