Some lawmakers would like to make it easier for the president to fire people.
The House plans to vote Wednesday on the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, which the House, which would make it easier for Cabinet secretaries to remove career staffers over poor work.
The legislation comes following reports that VA hospitals nationwide were badly mismanaged by senior government workers who created secret waiting lists to hide backlogs and left dozens of sick and injured vets to wait months for critically needed care.
The House bill would give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki the authority to fire any of the approximately 450 senior-level employees, including the VA hospital managers who neglected the vets and falsified records.
Shinseki can currently fire any employee, but the process for federal workers is hindered by mountains of red tape that can drag out the process for months or even years, say Republican and Democratic sponsors of the legislation.
In fact, many of the senior-level executives who ran the mismanaged hospitals now under scrutiny for neglecting veterans actually received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses and positive performance reviews, according to the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“This bill would simply give the VA Secretary the authority to fire or demote VA Senior Executive Service employees based on performance, similar to the authority the Secretary of Defense already has to remove military general officers from command or how I am able to fire someone who works for me on my staff,” Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla, said.
The House bill, however, also allows the secretary to transfer the employee to another government job.
“It’s their choice,” a GOP aide explained. “We don’t want to micromanage the secretary.”
Senior-level executives at the VA aren't unionized but they are given multiple ways to dodge punishment and job loss, according to a VA administration handbook.
• They can file grievances and hire lawyers and are given “30 days advance written notice” before any action is taken, which they can appeal.
• Even employees who are reprimanded or given an admonishment can, after two years or sooner, have any evidence of disciplinary action removed from their records.
• The VA rules place a high burden of proof on the department to prove an employee did anything wrong, even if an employee stops showing up for work. “In such a case,” the handbook stipulates, “the agency must prove not only that the employee was absent on the date(s) in question, but also that its decision to place the employee in AWOL status, rather than in approved leave status, was reasonable.”
• The rules also require the agency, if it decides to punish an employee, “to establish that the penalty selected is within the tolerable limits of reasonableness.”
• The agency must also adhere to the “nexus” rule.
“Nexus is the element in an adverse action which requires proof of an adequate relationship between the act of misconduct and the efficiency of the service,” says the handbook.
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said federal managers want to avoid running afoul of the regulations and generally give employees positive performance reviews, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to fire anyone.
“Firing is unpleasant, so federal managers avoid it.” Edwards said. “Private sector managers cannot avoid it because their own butts are on line if their group does not perform.”
Jeffrey Neal, who served as the head of human resources at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2011, said “you see very few employees being given poor performance ratings.”
Neal said just a fraction of Homeland Security employees have been let go due to poor performance, a number he believes is similar throughout the federal government.
A consultant and author of the blog ChiefHRO.com, Neal pointed to statistics from the Office of Personnel Management showing that out of nearly 2 million full-time federal employees, 7,349 were fired last year, fewer than half for poor performance.
“That would work out to less than two-tenths of one percent,” Neal said.
The House bill would allow the VA secretary to fire senior-level employees without having to jump through the extensive requirements listed in the handbook.
Neal warns the House legislation could be dangerous for employees and could leave them vulnerable to getting fired for political reasons.
“It does open itself up for abuse if any administration wanted to use it that way,” Neal said.