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New VA accountability law raises concerns over employee rights

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Several weeks ago, we posted about how laws shielding federal workers from retaliation undergo seemingly constant tweaks to close apparent loopholes. This is a positive thing insofar as it contributes to protecting rights of government employees around the country when they face adverse job action.

Not all law changes prompt cheers, however. For example, last week the president signed into law the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The measure offers additional security against retaliatory practices for whistleblowers in the VA on the one hand. On the other, it also reduces the window of opportunity for making job action appeals to the Merit System Protection Board.

Lower standard of evidence in bringing action

Supporters of the law note that it aims to restore accountability of not just rank-and-file employees at the beleaguered VA, but also managers and executives. It does this by reducing the amount of time workers have to file appeals and obtain reviews of discipline, demotion or removal from service actions. Other existing appeal avenues remain the same.

What most readers need to pay heed to is that the law gives VA officials a lower standard of evidence to meet when seeking to discipline, demote or remove workers. It used to be that officials had to provide a "preponderance of evidence" against an employee. With the new law, the standard is reduced to simply "substantial evidence."

Whether the new law succeeds in achieving the goals of increased worker accountability and better whistleblower protection remains to be seen. Some express concern that if the law does work as expected, it could serve as a model for major reform across all agencies.

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