In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump held a campaign rally in front of a Navy battleship in Norfolk, Virginia, and outlined his plan to restore trust at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We are going to make the VA great again,” Trump said to thunderous applause. “And we are going to do it by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down.”
Last June, Trump declared that he had made good on his promise when he signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The law followed a string of well-publicized scandals, most notably an incident from 2014 in which VA hospital administrators in Phoenix tampered with patient wait-time data. Agency officials struggled to oust managers complicit in the scandal, and the facility’s director was able to successfully appeal her termination. The law was meant to give the agency the tools to more easily fire unethical managers.
Instead, the law appears to have been used primarily to discipline low-level employees, according to VA data—and it has resulted in a weakening of due process for those recommended for removal, as well as the curtailing of their right to appeal, effectively superseding worker protections secured by unions in collective-bargaining agreements. As of February 2018 (the most recent month for which data is available), only five senior leaders had been removed since June 2017, the month the law was passed. The other 1,264 removals since then have been low-level employees, including people whom The Nation identified as working in claims processing, food service, and housekeeping. The VA doesn’t keep numbers on how many of these were veterans, but federal hiring laws restrict a number of low-level VA jobs to veterans, who currently hold about a third of all positions within the department.
“The jobs that are being targeted more, it seems, by this accountability act are jobs largely occupied by veterans—disabled veterans even more,” said David Bump, a local vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) in Portland, Oregon.
The Nation spoke to more than two dozen current and former VA employees and union officials, who portrayed the VA as an agency needlessly cracking down on loyal workers. Union officials allege that the law is being abused to retaliate against whistle-blowers and union members, and that the VA leadership has created conditions for employees to fail by promulgating stringent new work standards that have recategorized hardworking employees as failing. The law also established the shadowy Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, headquartered in Washington but with satellite offices across the country, staffed by 68 employees, as of last month, who provide “investigative internal affairs services.”