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About 200 federal workers marched by Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, protesting staffing shortages and what they argued were attempts by President Donald Trump to dismantle the VA health care system.

About 200 federal workers marched by Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, protesting staffing shortages and what they argued were attempts by President Donald Trump to dismantle the VA health care system. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — About 200 federal workers marched by Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington on Tuesday, protesting staffing shortages and what they argued were attempts by President Donald Trump to dismantle the VA health care system.

The crowd -- people shaking noisemakers or carrying signs that read, “Staff the VA” and “Hire, don’t fire” -- was organized by the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing about 230,000 VA workers.

“We want to march on the VA,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox. “We want the secretary to hear our voices loud and clear.”

The march was prefaced by speeches from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.; Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.; union leaders; and Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America. They addressed recent firings of VA workers and Trump’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget, which targets federal employee pay and benefits. The speakers also expressed fears that Trump was attempting to shift more public funds to private entities to undermine VA health care.

Their main point of contention was VA staffing shortages. As the crowd approached VA headquarters Tuesday afternoon, they faced the main entrance and shouted, “Staff the VA.”

The union has said over the last several months that the agency has 49,000 job vacancies, but the VA argues the true number is about 13,500 fewer than that.

As of Nov. 3, 2017, the VA had 35,554 unfilled full-time positions, said agency spokesman Curtis Cashour. He added that it was “significantly less than the 49,000 AFGE cites time and again.”

When questioned about the vacancies on Capitol Hill, VA Secretary David Shulkin has cited challenges with hiring doctors and nurses, particularly mental health care professionals. The agency set a goal to hire 1,000 mental health care workers in 2017. The VA hired 900 last year, but lost 945.

Weidman argued the shortages would lead to low morale and employee burnout.

“It’s burning out our best folks, and it’s unfair to them and unfair to the veterans,” Weidman said. “We need full staffing.”

Union leaders criticized the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act that Congress passed last spring, which lowers the burden of proof to fire VA employees. It also gives Shulkin the authority to skip a lengthy hiring process to directly appoint regional leaders.

In his State of the Union speech last month, Trump praised the bill and credited it with leading to the removal of 1,500 VA employees last year.

When the bill was mentioned Tuesday, the crowd of federal workers booed loudly.

“It’s perhaps the biggest trampling of civil-service protections we’ve seen in decades,” said Randy Erwin, leader of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Now the White House and some in Congress want to make similar changes government-wide. To them I say, ‘Hell no.’”

The rally was part of AFGE’s “legislative week,” during which union members travel to Washington for workshops and events. It aligned with the release Monday of Trump’s 2019 budget proposal.

Though the union criticized Congress and Trump’s administration for not fully funding or staffing the VA, Trump’s requested VA budget for 2019 totals nearly $200 billion and would be another in a series of significant increases for the agency over the past decade.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com 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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