New legislation makes it easier to fire employees at the VA

A recent law makes it easier for senior executives and other employees at the VA to be fired by the VA Secretary.

A new law that went into force this summer, called the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 has brought significant changes to how VA employees, especially those in executive positions, can be demoted, suspended, or fired. As the Los Angeles Times reports, while proponents of the new law claim that it will protect whistleblowers and punish "bad apples" in the VA, critics say it makes it much easier for the VA to fire employees "at will" and undoes longstanding employment practices in the civil service.

New disciplinary powers for VA Secretary

The new law gives the Secretary of the VA the power to remove, demote, or suspend a senior executive or other employee of the VA with cause. Under the law, the Secretary has a 15-day notice, response, and decision period for taking such disciplinary action against a senior executive in cases of alleged misconduct or poor performance. The affected senior executive then has just seven days to respond. Furthermore, as Federal News Radio reports, senior executive will no longer be able to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) but will rather have to go through the courts.

Regular VA employees are also now subjected to removal, demotion, or suspension by the VA Secretary due to misconduct or poor performance. However, they will be able to appeal to an administrative judge at the MSPB and to then appeal the judge's decision to the full MSPB board.

In cases where a VA employee is involved in a felony that affects their position then the VA Secretary also has the right to reduce their federal pension. The VA Secretary can also recoup bonus and travel expenses of fired employees.

Accountability or "at will" policy?

Supporters of the new law say it will bring greater accountability to the VA, which has been rocked by a number of scandals involving wait times in recent years. Critics of the new law say that it is focused more on eroding due process rights for employees and less on improving accountability. Those critics claim that the changes bring the VA closer to an "at will" policy for disciplinary actions, which could make removals, demotions, and suspensions more susceptible to political interference.

Federal employment law help

As the above article demonstrates, federal employees, whether they work for the VA or another department or agency, are subject to unique and often complex employment laws. Any federal employee who has been threatened with disciplinary action has rights to appeal their case and they should talk to an employment law attorney to understand what those rights are. An attorney who is experienced in federal employment law can help clients fight back, including by helping them pursue financial compensation or by helping them maintain their employment.