Rally at Salt Lake City veterans hospital highlights thousands of job vacancies, patient-care delays

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Talcott, who works in therapy at the VA joins other members of the American Federation of Government Employees and veterans at a rally at George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City Monday Oct. 16 to highlight dangerously low staffing levels at the facility.

The union representing Department of Veterans Affairs employees is demanding the agency fill tens of thousands of vacant positions around the country to help boost veterans’ care and improve working conditions.

About a dozen workers rallied Monday outside Salt Lake City’s George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, wearing blue shirts and holding signs that read: “VA vacancies go up. Vet care goes down.” Passing cars honked to show their support.

Shortages can be found across a range of job titles at the Salt Lake City VA, from housekeepers to medical staff in the intensive care unit, according to Clayton McDaniel, local president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents many VA workers.

“This is causing wait lines,” McDaniel said. “This is causing issues with our veterans who deserve the best care, and, quite frankly, they’re not getting it.”

AFGE says there are about 49,000 vacant positions nationwide, based off statements made by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin this spring. However, VA officials reported the vacancy tally had come down to about 35,000 as of Sept. 29. The VA employs about 377,000 people across the country.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the VA’s Veterans Health Administration has about a 9 percent vacancy rate — “less than half the vacancy rate for private sector hospitals.”

“But we‘re always looking for qualified medical professionals to fill positions that meet patient needs,” he said.

Salt Lake City VA officials reported there were 268 full-time vacancies as of last week. There were 27 Salt Lake City job postings Monday on the agency’s website.

VA spokeswoman Jennifer Dikes said reasons for the vacancies vary. A new telemedicine hub serving mental health patients has a 58 percent vacancy rate, for example, because it was only recently authorized to hire employees, she said.

“We are actively recruiting for all positions that we have funding for,” Dikes said.

The AFGE has organized similar rallies at several VA facilities across the country in recent weeks.

AFGE members Monday also criticized a new law, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, signed by President Donald Trump in June, which made it easier to fire employees for wrongdoing and added whistleblower protections.

Gerald Swanke, national vice president of AFGE, said it was true there have been issues at the VA with accountability and performance of employees. But he said the larger problem hurting veterans’ care is the high number of vacancies, something not addressed by the law.

“While Congress has come out with some legislation appearing to fix the crisis in the VA health care system — by making it easier to fire employees — there have been over 49,000 vacancies that have been funded and have not been filled,” Swanke said.

Swanke said by organizing the rallies at major VA facilities, union officials hope to catch the attention of members of Congress about the vacancy problem.

“[VA] management is not applying those resources that have been funded by Congress, appropriated by Congress,” Swanke said.