You might think behavior like “creating a hostile work environment” or “treating staff as personal assistants” or forcing “subordinates to buy lunches and handle transportation to and from work” would be enough to get an employee fired from his or her job.
But when it comes to the Department of Veterans Affairs, you’d be wrong.
The VA Loma Linda Healthcare System has been in a three-year-long battle over a supervisor who’s known to be abusive to staff and regularly late to work, among other bad behavior. But even with all the evidence of misconduct, the employee still works for the VA.
The VA has accountability measures at its disposal, so what is the hold up?
Accountability is necessary at the VA
In 2017, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was signed into law, giving the VA greater authority to discipline and fire employees when evidence shows misconduct or generally poor performance.
This legislation was driven by numerous employee scandals at the VA. In one case, poor performers were sent to work in different facilities around the country rather than being fired. In another, two VA employees orchestrated role changes for themselves that got them less responsibility at the same pay; when the VA tried to fire them, they appealed and were given their jobs back.
When the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protect Act was made law, it represented a win for veterans who use the VA and for the department itself. After all, VA leadership needs the authority to manage its workforce if it’s going to fulfill its promise to care for veterans.
But authority doesn’t mean much if the VA won’t use it.
Why isn’t the VA firing bad employees?
Recently, the VA has been public about not using its authority under the 2017 accountability law. The chief of the VA’s Human Capital Office said in congressional testimony that “VA has demonstrated the ability to hold employees accountable without having to use [the 2017 accountability authorities].”
VA Secretary Denis McDonough doubled down on that sentiment, saying the 2017 law wasn’t doing much to help VA hold staff accountable, and that they wouldn’t be using those authorities anymore as they were just “getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies.”
Seems like something the VA should go to Congress to get help for, maybe?
In the Loma Linda case, it’s not clear why this employee hasn’t been fired. Even members of Congress are scratching their heads over how this employee still has a job at the VA.
In a letter sent to the VA secretary, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost and Rep. Jay Obernolte, who represents Loma Linda, questioned why the employee hasn’t been fired despite multiple investigations and 36 witnesses confirming the employee’s misconduct.
“Despite the investigations’ consistent evidence and recommendations, and the massive amount of time, money, and energy spent investigating the supervisory employee over nearly three years, the supervisor remains employed,” the letter says, despite “repeatedly creating an environment that you claim VA does not tolerate. Consequently, employees are forced to either work in a hostile environment or leave VA.”
Bost and Obernolte argued in their letter to McDonough that this is exactly why the 2017 accountability law was enacted in the first place.
Unfortunately, VA has elected to pause the use of that authority beginning April 3, 2023. The painful three-year history of this case vividly demonstrates why this authority is necessary. Failing to quickly discipline employees in situations like this one is a disservice to both their peers and the veterans they serve. Creating a better work environment and a better VA for veterans must begin with more accountability, not less.
CVA Senior Advisor Darin Selnick told Military Times this is a case of the VA “not acting in good faith to solve its accountability problems.” He continued: “[The VA] could have come to Congress to fix the issues. … They didn’t seem to want to win.”
The department has a responsibility to serve veterans by holding staff accountable for misconduct and malfeasance. But as is typical of the VA, its leaders would rather maintain the status quo and skirt the law.
Read a story from a former VA employee who was bullied and harassed by bad VA employees for simply doing her job well.