President Donald Trump delivers remarks after signing five executive orders on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at the White House.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks after signing five executive orders on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, at the White House. (Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Dozens of Democrats urged President Donald Trump on Wednesday to exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs from the temporary federal hiring freeze he imposed Monday, saying it had the potential to harm veterans seeking health care and those trying to access benefits.

They also called on Trump to allow federal agencies to continue to hire veterans, who make up about one-third of the federal workforce.

“I am deeply troubled that your freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees will have a negative and disproportionate impact on our nation’s veterans,” the letter to Trump from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and 52 other Democrats signed the letter along with Tester.

Trump signed a presidential memorandum Monday mandating federal agencies not fill open positions or create new ones for 90 days, until the Office of Management and Budget can devise a long-term plan to cut the federal workforce through attrition.

The hiring freeze, which was promised during Trump’s campaign, does not apply to military personnel. The memo states there could be exemptions for jobs necessary for national security or public safety.

During a news conference at the White House on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that the VA would be covered by the freeze. “Hiring more people isn’t the answer” to fix the VA, he said, calling it “broken.”

“What we need to do, whether it’s the VA or any other agency, is make sure that we’re hiring smartly and effectively and efficiently,” Spicer said.

Leadership at the VA was scrambling to determine what the freeze meant for the agency. Nearly 2,300 job openings at the VA were listed on the federal hiring website when the freeze went into effect. Tester's office said the VA reported it currently has a total 45,000 vacancies.

On Tuesday night, acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder clarified that the department’s intent is to “exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety.” That includes front-line caregivers, he said.

VA spokesman Randy Noller said the department was in communication with the White House about the freeze. He did not respond to questions about how many of the open positions the VA plans to fill under the public safety exemption, or which jobs would be exempt.

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voiced their concerns about the temporary freeze earlier Tuesday.

Republican Sen. John Boozman, from Arkansas, said during a Tuesday committee meeting that the VA needs to have enough personnel to provide health care and benefits to veterans.

“We’re short-handed. I know President Trump and the people around him are aware of this,” Boozman said. “I think the committee can also help make him aware.”

The Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, agrees with Snyder that some positions should be exempt, said Tiffany Haverly, his communications director. Roe has asked the VA for more details about which positions those would be.

The VA has struggled to fill vacancies in recent years. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office just this week stated that there were delays in hiring critical clinical staff because of a lack of human resources employees.

The list of vacancies at the VA across the country includes health care providers, social workers and human resources personnel, and housekeeping, food service and transportation workers.

VA employees are working through a backlog of nearly 71,690 claims for pension and disability compensation. Nearly 390,000 claims are pending, according to VA data.

“Our nation’s veterans should not be made to sacrifice any more than they already have while you review federal hiring,” the letter from Democrats reads.

Tester, along with the other Democrats who signed the letter, asked Trump to consider that veterans make up nearly 31 percent of the federal workforce.

Katherine Kidder, a fellow in military, veterans and society at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that the hiring freeze has the potential to affect veterans seeking government jobs.

Veterans fill positions in the federal government at higher rates than the rest of the population, and – since 2010 – eligible veterans have received preference for federal jobs over other applicants.

Paul Rieckhoff, president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said many of its members go to work for the federal government.

“Job-seekers waiting to hear about a hiring determination just had their hope dashed,” Rieckhoff said in a written statement. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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