VA hiring surges amid coronavirus crisis, but department opposes risk premium for frontline staff

Veterans Affairs officials say they are hiring new employees at a breakneck rate as they continue to respond to the current coronavirus threat, but department critics say their opposition to the risk premium for these workers is undermining them. positive news.

Earlier this week, VA officials announced that they had hired 9,338 new medical staff – including 2,147 registered nurses – during the month of April, a “record pace for strengthening facilities staff (VA).”

The department’s leadership has come under close scrutiny by lawmakers in recent months for slow hiring, resulting in nearly 50,000 vacancies among VA’s 400,000-plus employees.

But in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, VA officials put aggressive pressure on retired medical staff and laid-off workers at private-sector medical centers to quickly fill those positions.

Some of the new hires are temporary workers, but in a statement, department heads said the moves had provided “a stable staffing situation in the vast majority of VA sites nearly two months after the emergency began. national “.

But the new hiring announcement this week came almost at the same time that officials from the American Federation of Government Employees (which represents about 260,000 VA employees) lambasted department heads for opposing efforts to providing risk premiums to federal medical employees despite the health risks. they are facing the fight against the virus.

In a statement to ABC News this week, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that the risk premium “is to compensate employees when the risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and the employees cannot be mitigated. safely protected, and this is the opposite of today’s VA environment.

VA and union officials have argued in recent weeks over the availability of personal protective equipment in the department’s health system, with administration officials insisting supplies were adequate and worker groups were reporting widespread shortages and rationing.

AFGE National President Everett Kelley called VA’s stance against the risk premium a “slap in the face of the employees” who currently serve veterans.

“It is absurd to say that frontline VA employees are not owed a risk premium because VA has finally started providing employees with the protections they have been asking for since the start of this pandemic,” a- he said in a statement.

“VA has failed to stop the danger in many places. Combined with the lack of PPE, they told employees to keep coming to work after known exposures. … Until the VA repairs his PPE and leaves the problems behind, he cannot mitigate the danger sufficiently. “

As of Thursday morning, more than 1,367 VA staff have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two months, including 30 who ultimately died of complications. The VA Medical Center in East Orange, NJ has lost six workers to the virus.

Across the VA system, the number of active coronavirus cases has declined in recent days even as the number of patient deaths has continued to rise.

A volunteer from Team Rubicon prepares for a shift at the Navajo Nation's Kayenta Health Center in northeastern Arizona.  The disaster recovery charity has sent a dozen medical workers to the site to help with coronavirus response efforts.  (Courtesy of the Rubicon team)

VA officials have reported 2,176 active patient cases out of a total of 11,699 positive tests in the past two months. A week ago, the number of active cases was nearly 3,000, which translates to a 25% drop in seven days.

But the number of VA deaths has seen a similar increase over the same period. On May 7, VA reported that 810 patients had died from complications related to the virus. A week later, that number had risen to 972, an increase of over 20%.

So far, 104 different VA medical centers have recorded at least one death related to the virus.

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