VA tech system freezes out workers, union complains

A Philadelphia AFGE local alleges that stress on the VA system has led workers to risk reprimand for working off-hours and that the Veterans Benefits Administration won't share contingency plans with employees.

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A local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees is alleging that the Veterans Benefits Administration won't share the agency's Continuity of Operation Plan with employees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Jim Rihel, president of AFGE Local 940, which represents 1,100 workers within the Philadelphia VBA office told FCW that 70% to 75% of VBA workers were telework-ready before the pandemic, but that workers have faced issues since the office has pivoted to allowing employees to work from home.

"IT infrastructure has been causing problems," he said in an interview. "It's not designed to have as this many people operating at one time on its network. Although our workers are getting their work done, they're doing it under extreme stress. The network is forcing them to reboot several times a day. They're not being compensated for that time, and it's impacting their ability to meet their standards."

The response from VBA leadership has been to stonewall the bargaining units, Rihel said, and the agency has refused to share its continuity of operation plan.

"They've been instructed not to discuss this or any secondary issues behind it with the [union] locals."

In response, Rihel filed an unfair labor practice charge against the VBA on April 21, for failure to provide information with regards to the COOP.

"On March 23, 2020, the agency sent an email to employees stating that the directors were jointly activating the Continuity of Operation Plan (COOP) and shutting down the building. That same day the union requested the COOP," Rihel wrote in the complaint.

"After two days of back and forth, [management] stated that the COOP was an internal agency document and therefore, would not be provided to the union. This is in direct violation of the [federal labor-relations] statute."

Rihel alleges that VBA has refused to honor negotiations with the bargaining units and has only met with them once.

A VA spokesperson told FCW that the Philadelphia VBA was following governmentwide guidelines to protect employees and maintain operations.

"VBA's National Labor Partners were notified of VBA’s national COVID-19 plans on March 24, 2020, and advised impact and implementation bargaining would occur post-implementation," the spokesperson said.

"As part of COVID-19 planning and preparation, VA tested its enterprise-wide virtual private networks and gateways from March 11 through March 17, 2020. This testing had minimal impact on VA’s claims processors, and employees who were impacted by the testing worked with their supervisor to mitigate any effect to the employee’s performance standards," the spokesperson said.

Rihel said that because workers been forced to reboot their home duty stations so often and vie with large numbers of fellow workers on the same network, many have been trying to get their work done at any possible time. This has forced them to work through breaks, lunch time and even after hours, which can land them in trouble.

Logging onto the network outside of their normal time of duty can earn them a reprimand, Rihel said.

"The attitude from VBA has been 'deal with it, meet your standard or else,'" Rihel said. "They're having workers do everything they can to reach their standards. Otherwise they can fail their performance evaluations and risk termination."

AFGE has clashed with VA management on the national stage since the coronavirus pandemic began. In March, the union filed a lawsuit demanding that the VA, Department of Agriculture, and Bureau of Prisons give its members hazard pay for being exposed to COVID-19 while on the job.

AFGE's National VA Council also launched a petition to guarantee medical workers a bill of rights that included access to personal protective equipment and telework status for those who weren't required to report in person to work.

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