VA exempts more vacant jobs from federal hiring freeze

by Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs has added more than 60 job titles to the list of vacant positions exempt from the temporary federal hiring freeze enacted in January by President Donald Trump.

VA Secretary David Shulkin issued a memorandum last week on the additional exemptions, including some positions in the Veterans Benefits Administration, an agency that lawmakers have urged for more workers to be hired to help with veterans’ claims.

“This announcement is critical for veterans waiting for answers on their disability claims, appeals and seeking care in places like Montana,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a prepared statement.

Robert Synder, who held the role of VA secretary in the weeks before Shulkin’s confirmation, exempted 94 job titles Jan. 27, just days after the 90-day freeze took effect Jan. 23. That exemption allowed the VA to continue hiring for thousands of open positions — approximately 37,000 of 45,000 vacancies, Shulkin has told lawmakers.

Shulkin’s memo, issued March 13, increases freeze-exempt jobs to 156. It was unclear Monday how many more of the 45,000 vacancies could be filled based on Shulkin’s memo. However, depending on how many vacancies there are for each job title, there could be hundreds, possibly thousands, of additional positions exempt from the hiring freeze.

Republicans and Democrats have voiced concern about how the hiring freeze would affect the VA.

The Government Accountability Office, a leading government watchdog, announced in February the VA would remain on its “high-risk” list, partly because of hiring difficulties in the department. The list comprises areas of government susceptible to waste and mismanagement and in need of more oversight.

A GAO report from December stated the VA struggles with “systemic, long-standing human capital challenges.” Lawmakers have repeatedly called on the VA to hire more clinical staff. A House subcommittee is set Wednesday to review the VA’s ability to hire and retain employees.

Most of the VA positions initially exempted from the hiring freeze were ones that provided patient care. The list also included several positions related to major VA construction projects and some jobs involved in veterans’ burials.

Shulkin’s new list is more wide-ranging.

In the memo, he wrote the positions “are necessary to meet… public safety responsibilities.”

He added cybersecurity jobs, VA law enforcement and positions that reimburse non-VA facilities for providing treatment to VA patients. He also added more positions at the Veterans Crisis Line, which offers confidential support for veterans and their families.

Exemptions previously did not include jobs in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Shulkin added 16 jobs in that area that are now exempt, including employees who examine and rate veterans’ claims for VA health care and other benefits.

Lawmakers previously expressed concern about the how the hiring freeze would affect veterans who were trying to gain access to VA benefits. More than 50 Democrats in the House and Senate signed a Jan. 25 letter that asked Trump to “reevaluate this hiring freeze and take into account the effect it will have on veterans who will have to wait longer for earned benefits.”

Nearly 100,000 claims are backlogged in the Veterans Benefits Administration, according to VA data as of Saturday, meaning veterans have waited longer than 125 days to receive decisions on them.

On March 7, Shulkin testified to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that his staff was constantly reviewing the list of claims to determine whether they should fill more vacancies. Shulkin asked the White House that week for permission to hire for more positions, he told the committee.

Eight jobs on the Board of Veterans Appeals were also added to the list of exemptions. The board conducts hearings for veterans’ appeals on benefits claims.

Shulkin said the positions on the board and the benefits administration are “critical to medical health care and financial stability, without which public health and safety would be compromised.”

In February, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., introduced legislation that would exempt the VA completely from the hiring freeze, but it has yet to be taken up by a committee. Other lawmakers urged all veterans seeking jobs in the federal government should be exempt.

“I believe that the entire VA, as well as veterans seeking jobs in the federal government, should never have been included in the hiring freeze in the first place,” said Tester, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The hiring freeze will expire in late April, when the Office of Personnel Management is expected to recommend a plan to reduce the size of the federal workforce.