VA responds to accusations about excessive outsourcing

The VA's dispute with its employees' union continued to heat up as the agency responded to claims that its outsourcing practices are undermining its veteran hiring goals.

The Veterans Affairs Department is defending its outsourcing and veteran hiring practices, following an accusation that the outsourcing may be reducing the number of veterans in its own workforce.

The VA “is a leader in the effort to expand employment opportunities for America’s veterans in both the public and private sector,” Joshua Taylor, press secretary, said in an emailed statement on Feb. 10. “Approximately 30 percent of current VA employees are veterans, and VA has a target of raising that figure to 40 percent.”

The VA was responding to claims made this week by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO union with 205,000 members who are VA employees.

The union on Feb. 8 accused the VA of undermining its own goal of hiring more veterans by expanding its outsourcing practices in recent years, eliminating many federal jobs currently, or historically, held by veterans.

AFGE officials also said that a recent $54 million contract awarded by the Veterans Benefits Administration for claims processing would result in lost jobs for many veterans currently performing that work at the VA.

The VA spokesman denied that was the case.

“No VA jobs are at risk as a result of this short-term contract with ACS,” Taylor said in the statement. “In fact, Veterans are specifically being recruited under the contract and currently make up 15 percent of the personnel employed, a far greater rate than found in the general population.”

However, Marilyn Park, legislative representative for the AFGE, said the union has heard many complaints from its field offices that many of the newest hires in the VA’s claims processing office—a large portion of whom are veterans—are losing or already have lost their jobs.

“We are hearing about many people being let go,” Park said in an interview with Federal Computer Week on Feb. 10. Many of them are veterans hired in the last two years and trained for claims processing, she added.

“There was a surge of hires to do that work, and now we are getting reports of people being fired in their probation periods. Many of these are vets and disabled vets,” Park said. “So many of the recent hires are being let go. I have heard so many heartbreaking stories.”

She said exact numbers have been difficult to obtain from the VA, but she estimated the number of affected workers as being in the hundreds.

In addition, VA workers who remain in those jobs are being asked to train the incoming contract workers, Park said.

“Why would you want to take a number of jobs in a core agency that should be a model for veteran hiring and give a big chunk of that work to a contractor?” Park asked.

AFGE also asserted that the VA did not comply with a 2009 law that requires that departments perform cost-benefit evaluations of work currently being performed by an agency before outsourcing the work. The work should only be outsourced if there are benefits for taxpayers, the law states.

“Most of the VA’s contracts violate federal sourcing law that bans federal work from being given away to contractors without a fair competition between public and private employees,” AFGE said on Feb. 8.

However, VA officials said they are complying with the law.

The recent claims processing contract with ACS Government “does not violate any law,” Taylor wrote in the statement on behalf of the VA.

But the VA has acknowledged that it did not perform a cost comparison, according to a Nov. 10 letter by Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits. A copy of the letter was made available by Park.

“VBA did not do a cost-comparison, as this is a one-time contract to address the claims workload. It also includes a significant number of tasks not currently performed within VBA, and is focused on supporting VBA by providing cases ready for decision by VBA employees,” Hickey wrote in the letter. Hickey also wrote that “contractors are not being substituted for federal employees” in the contract.

Park characterized those statements as a “weak argument” because the claims workload is an ongoing responsibility and not a one-time issue. Furthermore, she said the bulk of the work involves claims processing, which is work currently performed by the VA.

“All of these excuses do not carry much weight with me,” Park said.

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