The federal civil service needs reform starting at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, as shown by new data listing how many VA employees were dismissed in the last five months and how that compares to the rate of dismissals in the private sector. Ironically federal employee unions and advocates insist that the data show the opposite.
The need to address glaring personnel problems at the VA has been a major national issue since May 2014. Thanks to whistleblowers, the public learned that year that officials in many VA hospitals were found to be lying about the speed with which they responded to veterans’ health problems. Employees who blew the whistle on this issue and other abuses were often punished by their superiors.
Efforts to correct these management problems soon ran into the thicket of civil service rules that make it hard to dismiss federal employees. It can take months and even years of litigation to fire one person who takes advantage of these rules.
Frustration with this situation led Congress in 2014 to pass a law reducing the amount of time available to appeal personnel decisions. But when a senior VA hospital official challenged her dismissal under the new law on constitutional grounds the Obama administration decided not to enforce it.
Attempts by Congress to pass new legislation to streamline dismissals at VA finally got bipartisan support this year, and President Trump signed the law June 23. Now in an effort to demonstrate transparency and accountability in personnel actions the VA has published a list of dismissals, suspensions and demotions for the five months before the new act took effect. The 500 plus dismissals on the list cover a gamut of employees from janitors to physicians.
The American Federation of Government Employees represents over 70 percent of the VA’s employees. Its president, J. David Cox, told the Washington Post that the list “isn’t transparency. It’s an intimidation tactic” by the Trump administration.
But Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the VA list is “a great demonstration to the American public that feds are held accountable and can be held accountable ….[I]t’s not so hard to remove feds and it happens all the time,” adding, “Why in the world did they need more authority to fire feds when they can to it at this rate?”
The data show that the rate is, in fact, highly favorable to employees and a demonstration of the difficulty of removing federal employees who abuse their position.
The data show that in the five months since President Trump was inaugurated the VA “removed” slightly more than 500 employees, for a rate of about 100 firings a month or about 0.03 percent of the VA’s 375,000 employees per month. For the federal government as a whole, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in April 11,000 employees were either dismissed or came to the end of temporary jobs, at a monthly rate of 0.4 percent, more than 10 times greater than at the VA. Because of temporary employees, the rates are not strictly comparable.
But the VA rate can also be compared to the rate of layoffs and discharges in private industry. For April, BLS reports that it was 1.2 percent, 40 times greater than the rate at the VA.
In other words, on average a VA employee in April had a 99.97 percent chance of keeping his or her job, no matter how badly performed.
That’s no indication that VA employees should be afraid of losing their jobs. Indeed, the figures show how hard it is to dismiss civil servants. It is an argument for improving the accountability process, as the new law does.