VA Labor Contract Favors Union Bureaucrats Over Vets For Jobs

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) union contract requires the agency hire bureaucrats over veterans for most jobs, despite federal laws and regulations that give vets hiring preference in the civil service.

The Master Agreement between the VA and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) states, “Prior to considering candidates from outside the bargaining unit, the department agrees to first consider internal candidates for selection … in all cases … first and full consideration shall be given to any best qualified candidates within the facility.”

Veterans are supposed to get “preference points” against other applicants under federal civil service hiring rules. At the VA, such points are apparently negated by a hard-and-fast rule that a job can’t go to anyone unless no qualified union member wants it.

The Veterans Employment Opportunities Act (VEOA) also allows vets to apply for jobs that are otherwise only open to current employees. Thanks to the union contract, it is futile for them to apply — at least for plum positions — because the VA must consider union members first.

Both situations leave veterans largely relegated to bottom-of-the-barrel positions like scrubbing the bathrooms of administrators.

The rules apply to any union-covered jobs that are filled competitively. A third type of veterans hiring accommodations — the Veterans’ Recruitment Appointment (VRA)–allows agencies to skip the competitive process and directly appoint recently discharged veterans into jobs.

But based on a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis of all 3,000 currently-open VA job postings, the agency almost never limits a job to applications from veterans. 21 percent were explicitly available only to current employees, seventeen percent were open to current employees and vets, and 58 percent were advertised to the public.

When the agency uses VRA, it generally decides to do so after reviewing applications from other sources–for example, if no qualified union member applied. Often, vets can’t even apply unless union members have already declined to take the job.

Last month, for example, the Caribbean VA medical center posted two job ads for “health system specialist.” Asked by a veteran if vets could apply to at least one of the jobs, John Hernandez, a VA human resources specialist, emailed “unfortunately” they could not due to the union.

“Unfortunately, under Article 23 Section 8 of the Master Agreement it stipulates that all positions that are bargaining unit will be announced facility wide before any other considerations are given, unless the position is filled by the stipulations stated in Article 23, Section 7 of the Master Agreement. In this case Article 7 [sic] does not apply,” Hernandez wrote.

Section 8 says current employees must be given first dibs at all jobs except if they are filled under Section 7 — which covers direct appointments of certain classes, including veterans under the VRA. It does not mention VEOA.

Department of Veterans Affairs spokespersons did not dispute TheDCNF’s findings. The union said it is up to the department when to fill jobs under Section 7.

“The determination of recruitment source – whether external, internal, VRA, etc. — is determined by the agency alone. Each source comes with its own rules regarding who qualifies, whether vets preference is applicable, etc. The union has no negotiability in this regard,” AFGE spokesman Tim Kauffman said.

“The contract cannot override VEOA, or any other federal law, for that matter,” he added.

Ryan Honl, a veteran who worked at the VA hospital in Tomah, Wisc. before becoming a whistleblower by telling Congress about the mistreatment he witnessed in the facility, told TheDNCF that “VA’s first objective was to originally ‘care for those who have borne the battle.’ Today, the VA’s original mission has become secondary. Its primary mission is now to serve bureaucrats and those in power” by sustaining high-paying administrative jobs for civilians.

Since Honl voiced his concerns, VA employees have threatened to sue and discredit him. They even by made his personal medical information public.

Even as the VA agreed to language promoting current government employees over veterans, agency officials used the idea of connecting veterans with jobs as a way to employ even more unionized bureaucrats. The Veteran Employment Services Office was created within the VA to help get jobs for veterans, including jobs at the agency. The department would not say how many bureaucrats are employed there, or how many of whom are vets.

A $118,000-salaried “Employment Coordinator,” whose job it is to help vets find work, for example, is only available to current VA employees. Even “peer-support specialists” — a low-level position that pays $64,000, and is required by law to employ veterans since it entails visiting veterans’ houses to talk about emotional challenges — is only open to VA employees. The catch is these VA employees must also happen to be veterans.

Despite the union provision, the VA does hire a sizable number of veterans overall. Nearly 38 percent of new VA hires in 2014 were vets. That figure is a lower percentage than the departments of Defense, Transportation, Justice and the Social Security Administration.

In 2013, the VA figure was 34.1 percent, behind the previously mentioned departments and the Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy. The average across all agencies was 33.5 percent in 2014 and 31.4 in 2013.

But those figures don’t convey the rank, authority or prestige of the jobs. The union contract makes it likely that competitively hired veterans get low-ranking positions that no current VA employees wanted. Veterans do still get preference over members of the public.

TheDCNF asked the VA weeks ago for a breakdown of veteran employees by rank, but a spokeswoman said the data wasn’t available, despite “moving heaven and earth” to find out. This apparently indicates the VA is not actively tracking and trying to increase the number of vets in positions of authority.

Coming Monday: The VA almost never reserves jobs for veterans

Earlier: Only 13% of VA hospital administrators are veterans

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