New VA Data on Discipline May Be Hint of Future

The VA has issued additional data on discipline against its employees during the first year of the Trump administration, most taken under a law that strengthened management’s hand and that the administration has said it wants to extend across the entire federal workforce.

The agency previously had reported on serious disciplinary actions–removal, downgrade or suspension of more than 14 days–against employees who had completed their probation periods, data that showed that the rate more than doubled after passage in mid-year of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. Among other changes, that law shortened the period of notice, response and final action within the agency to 15 working days, and lowered management’s burden of proof in appeals before the MSPB in performance-related discipline from the “preponderance of the evidence” to only the “substantial” evidence needed in conduct-related actions.

A proposal to extend those policies could be made soon as part of the administration’s upcoming fiscal 2019 budget plan.

The initial VA figures, involving only tenured employees, showed that through year-end 2017, the VA had removed 1,470 employees, suspended 443 and demoted 83. A new set of data through last month including probationary employees shows 2,732 firings, 458 suspensions and 92 demotions. Probationary employees have still fewer appeal rights; the figures in sum show that in almost all cases the discipline ordered against them is firing.

The numbers do not account for employees who leave voluntarily in the face of discipline to avoid having it in their records.

The AFGE union, which represents many VA workers, meanwhile pointed out that the disciplinary actions were concentrated disproportionately in positions such as housekeeping, maintenance and other support positions. “The majority of those this administration has kicked to the curb have been the lowest paid and ranked employees, those who earned less than $30,000 annually . . . only .009% of removals have been the managers causing the kind of problems that advocates of the VA Accountability Act claimed to care about,” it said.