Peters, Colleagues Call for Premium Pay for VA Employees on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Gary Peters, Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, joined his colleagues in calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to share information on premium and retention pay policies for medical employees working on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. Peters previously proposed the “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” to provide pandemic premium pay to reward, retain and recruit essential workers. The House passed a provision based on his proposal, and Peters has called on the Senate to provide premium pay for frontline workers, including VA employees who are putting their lives at risk to care for our nation’s veterans during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, it is critical to ensure we are also safeguarding the health and recognizing the sacrifice of those who provide critical care at VA facilities,” the Senators wrote. “We remain concerned to hear reports that VA frontline medical employees still do not feel adequately supported to conduct their jobs safely – including having access to appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Employees have also noted a lack of hazard pay in recognition of their daily risk of working in hospitals with COVID-19 patients.”

The Senators continued, “We will continue to advocate in future legislation for hazard pay for workers on the front lines of this pandemic to recognize their service and bravery in this unprecedented time. Given that VA was appropriated more than $19 billion in the CARES Act for the COVID-19 response, we urge you to implement hazard pay for VA medical employees regardless of current incentives unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic they may also be receiving.”

Peters, a former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has previously raised concerns about the risk to patients and health care providers caused by limited access to PPE at VA facilities, including the John D. Dingell Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Detroit.

Text of the letter is copied below and available here.

 

The Honorable Robert Wilkie

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue NW

Washington, D.C., 20420

Dear Secretary Wilkie,

We are appreciative of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) efforts to provide quality healthcare for veterans and non-veterans during this COVID-19 pandemic and national emergency. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, it is critical to ensure we are also safeguarding the health and recognizing the sacrifice of those who provide critical care at VA facilities.

We remain concerned to hear reports that VA frontline medical employees still do not feel adequately supported to conduct their jobs safely – including having access to appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  Employees have also noted a lack of hazard pay in recognition of their daily risk of working in hospitals with COVID-19 patients. A recent article quoted VA press secretary Christina Noel as saying the purpose of hazard pay “is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA.”[1]  However, until recently VA was operating under austerity measures for mask usage due to supply shortages, leaving many VA staff at risk. In fact, while VA is beginning to re-open facilities across the country, VA employees contend that they remain at constant risk of contracting COVID-19 given their direct and indirect contact with patients. This seems to be borne out by the VA’s own statistics, which show there are 1,349 active employee cases of COVID-19 and 2,398 staff quarantined and unable to work as of June 29. Tragically, 38 VA employees have died.[2] While we cannot pinpoint exactly where VA staff were exposed to COVID-19 and community exposure is always a possibility, working in a health care setting is an undeniably high risk factor. VA’s recent PPE austerity measures risked the health of countless VA staff, and while PPE supply has since improved, essential staff are still in danger of exposure by reporting to work every day.[3]

Our hardworking VA clinical staff should feel fully supported by the Department as they continue to serve on the front lines of the pandemic. We are requesting that VA provide the following information:

  1. Does VA Central Office expect to make a department-wide decision on whether to offer hazard pay to VA employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, or is this decision delegated to regional Veterans Integrated Service Networks or individual health care facilities?
  2. If hazard pay has been offered, what is the process for determining which VA employees were eligible?
    1. How many employees have been offered hazard pay, at what rate, what were the criteria, and who was eligible?
    2. Have there been any instances of VA employees who were offered hazard pay to have the offer rescinded? If so, how many employees had offers of hazard pay rescinded and what was the reasoning behind this decision?
  3. How has VA determined which employees receive COVID-19-specific retention incentives, and at what rates? We request that also you share all information outlining current retention pay policies.
  4. Are there VA employees who have been deemed ineligible for hazard pay because they are already receiving retention incentives unrelated to COVID-19? If so, how many people have been affected? 
  5. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has a payment limit on recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives for federal employees that limit such incentives generally to a maximum of 25 percent annual rate of basic pay. However, in April 2020, OPM announced that due to COVID-19, federal agencies may request that OPM waive certain limits on retention pay in order to address a critical agency need due to this unprecedented circumstance.[4] Additionally, the VA section of the CARES Act also waives federal pay caps for VA employees working on the COVID-19 response.
    1. Has VA requested relief, or considered requesting relief, from retention payment limits from OPM due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic?
    2. If so, how does VA plan to apply the retention payment waiver? Which types of VA staff would receive retention payments and at what rates? If the waiver has been used to-date, please provide a summary of how many employees have received retention payments, and a breakdown by location, position, and rate.

We will continue to advocate for hazard pay for workers on the front lines of this pandemic to recognize their service, bravery and risk in this unprecedented time. Given VA was appropriated more than $19 billion in the CARES Act for the COVID-19 response, we urge you to implement hazard pay for VA health care employees regardless of current incentives unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic they may also be receiving.

We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to your responses to our questions.

 

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