Lifting the hiring restrictions imposed by the federal hiring freeze
On Wednesday, April 26, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it would lift the hiring restrictions imposed on the Department by the Trump Administration’s federal hiring freeze. But internal reports obtained by the Associated Press indicate that close to 5,000 positions may be left vacant unless approved “position by position” by senior VA officials as addressing an “absolute critical need.”
The federal hiring freeze, enacted a few days after President Trump took office, was officially lifted earlier this month on April 11. The Office of Management and Budget replaced the freeze with a directive for agencies to develop more “surgical” plans to reduce their workforces. So far, VA is the only major agency to detail what the lifting of the freeze means in practical terms.
According to VA’s announcement, hiring managers will be able to fill current vacancies across the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). At VHA, which employs almost 90 percent of VA’s 376,000 workers, the hiring freeze lift applies to both medical and non-medical positions.
Despite lifting of restrictions, positions will remain vacant
Thousands of positions, however, will be left vacant unless hiring managers get “Under Secretary level approval” or, at VA’s Central Office, approval from the Chief of Staff. The positions include roughly 4,000 in the VA healthcare system and 200 in the VA benefits system. Additionally, more than 400 information technology positions and over 100 human resources positions will remain vacant.
VA is no stranger to staffing challenges, making the decision to leave vacancies open more controversial. In March of last year, Elias Hernandez, former chief officer of workforce management at the VHA told members of the House that VA had roughly 43,000 medical and health-related positions unfilled.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published earlier this year found that staffing shortages in IT and HR had hurt VA’s ability to recruit and hire key staff department-wide. Hiring at some VA Medical Centers had And a recent internal review of unsafe conditions at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center revealed that the absence of an HR department and chronic understaffing were in part to blame for the safety issues at the D.C. facility.
Looking to the future
President Trump has proposed a 6 percent increase in the Veterans Affairs budget and on April 26, signed an executive order establishing a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in the department.
But major veterans organizations still worry, The New York Times reports, that the decision to leave vacancies open might indicate increased financial tightening at the VA even after the department had previously warned it would need “hiring surges” to address the growing backlog of veterans’ disability claims.