An IG report and a new Coronavirus response plan from VA management have separately raised warnings that shortages of employees—long a concern at the department—already are worsening and could become even more severe just when employees would be needed the most.
In a report conducted over a period ending March 24, 25 of the 54 facilities visited by IG auditors “reported a rise in absentee staff due to childcare issues, school closures, and planned spring break absences. One facility reported absenteeism of older employees due to concerns with their own safety in light of COVID-19 risks. Facility leaders reported allocating staff from to needed areas, moving towards telehealth, and offering overtime pay to address staff absences.”
For example, 15 of the facilities visited considered their police staffing to be “inadequate,” mostly “due to training, recruitment, and retention challenges, as well as the additional strain caused by the need for additional police presence for COVID-19-related screenings. In order to address staffing sufficiency, some facility leaders reported moving to 12-hour shifts and attempting to get contract security services,” it said.
Also, 19 facilities reported understaffing in custodial and housekeeping type positions, blaming “complex hiring practices, lower wages than the private sector, and an increased workload due to COVID-19. For example, one facility was deploying staff to clean high-touch areas, such as elevators, doorknobs, and railings, with greater frequency. Some facilities were looking into establishing contracts to try and address staffing gaps.”
The department’s new response plan—which projected increased workload of varying levels for different scenarios—meanwhile said that “in a severe outbreak, absenteeism may reach 40 percent, due to illness, the need to care for ill family members, or fear of infection during the peak weeks of a community outbreak. Lower rates of absenteeism are expected during the weeks before and after the peak.”