Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

AFGE-NVAC National Health & Safety Conference (Virtual)
Washington, DC
April 19, 2021

Everyone, good morning. Alma [Lee, Pres. N.V.A.C.], thanks for inviting me, and thanks for your leadership as President of National Veterans Affairs Council Number 53.

Everett [Kelly, Nat’l Pres., A.F.G.E.], yours is a life of service—three years serving the nation in the Army, 30 years as a DA civilian at Anniston Army Depot, all underscored by four decades representing labor as an A.F.G.E. member, leader, and now President. Thanks, Everett, for that service and your leadership.

And let me recognize VA’s own, Doug Dulaney. I understand Doug’s been working hard supporting the conference and making sure our industrial hygienists and other experts are available for the training. Thanks, Doug, for representing VA so well as you represent your fellow employees.

Our government employees are fortunate to have all of you leading them. And in your leadership you are truly privileged, because there’s no better group of people than our civil servants—committed to serving the American people and strengthening the security and economic vitality of the nation.

Close to my heart are VA’s civil servants who prove time and again, and no less during this pandemic, their singular commitment to the nation and our Veterans. In fact, retirements and leave requests are at a historic low during the pandemic, a testament to their deep devotion. AFGE and NVAC’s work representing VA’s civil servants is critical to strengthening VA, critical to helping make VA more effective.

And I’m pleased we’re in the process of resetting labor relations at VA

We want and need good, strong, productive relations—open and transparent communications. And resetting means we all have the opportunity to reset our perspectives, together. That’s why we’re committed to fully implementing President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce, an order he signed just two days after his inauguration.

Up front in that order, he made clear four important points essential to our work together. First, VA’s career civil servants “are the backbone of the Federal workforce.” Second, we owe it to the nation, especially at this critical moment, to “protect, empower, and rebuild the career Federal workforce.” Third, we won’t just support union organizing, but we’ll “encourage union organizing and collective bargaining.” And fourth, we’re committed to these principles because we want the Federal Government to be “a model employer.” And I intend for VA to be the model employer for the Federal Government. I’m counting on your help.

These are powerful commitments from President Biden to organized labor, with enormous potential to do right by federal workers and those they serve. And they’re my commitment to our VA labor force who are doing such noble work.

We live in peace and security today because of the sacrifices of generations of Veterans.

There is no more sacred obligation nor noble undertaking than to uphold our promises to our Veterans, whether they came home decades ago or days ago. At this moment, when our country must come together, caring for our country’s Veterans and their families is a mission that can unite us all.

When it comes to fulfilling that obligation, President Biden charged me to be their fierce advocate. So, we’re focusing on four fundamental principles as a vision for the future—Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.

That means VA’s going to be the nation’s premier advocate for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. They’ve made their down payment—sometimes in blood and invisible wounds that may affect them the rest of their lives—and their sacrifices earned them the care and services we provide. We exist to best serve them—not to do what’s easy for us.

That means we’ll provide them timely access to VA resources—world-class health care, earned benefits, and a final resting place that’s a lasting tribute to their selfless service. Veterans have earned and deserve access to their care, benefits, and services.

That means Veterans outcomes will drive everything we do, and good data is critical to improving outcomes. So, in the future we’re going to rely more heavily on data than we ever have before, to include launching our VA Data Strategy to empower Veterans in their journey from service to lifelong care and benefits. And when it comes to caring for the health and safety of our employees who are caring for our Veterans—especially navigating this pandemic—we’ll continue relying on the best available data and science-based public health measures.

Finally, that means we’re going to seek excellence in all we do for Veterans by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines our Veteran population, our VA workforce, and our country. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access are fundamental to everything we do. Every person working at and entering a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination. We will never accept discrimination, harassment, or assault. Diversity is a strength, never a weakness, among our employees, Veterans, and all of America.

So, Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence—achieving all that for Veterans is a big lift. I’m counting on every one of our nearly 425,000 VA employees to be a part of that success, to help achieve that vision for Veterans. And the VA employees I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with over the last 70 days are highly skilled, dedicated, exceptional professionals—many are Veterans themselves. It’s thanks to them—their ingenuity, flexibility, and agility—that VA’s been able to provide continuity of services in the face of the pandemic.

NCA workers at national cemeteries across the country continued serving Veterans and their families while honoring safety restrictions necessary to keep themselves and those they’re serving healthy—modifying operations to align with safety requirements as those requirements have evolved.

For VBA employees, Fiscal Year 2020 was their best year ever in terms of delivering more benefits to Veterans faster than they ever have before. And 2021 is shaping up to continue that trend, despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the critical need to address the backlog of more than 200,000 claims.

VHA workers, representing about 90 percent of our employees, have quickly responded to protect Veterans’ health and stay engaged with patients with comprehensive measures and innovative technology applications. So far, thanks to their devoted work, they’ve vaccinated over 2.7 million Veterans and other Americans with at least their first dose of COVID vaccine. Over 302,000 of our employees across all administrations have received at least their first dose, and nearly 278,000 employees are fully vaccinated. If you’re not yet vaccinated, please, check into the email from Dr. Clancy that I’ll resend later today that has information on how to schedule your vaccination.

To protect our health care workforce, over the course of the pandemic we increased PPE at medical centers from 30- to 60-days of supply to overcome supply chain challenges. And we’re establishing geographically distributed Regional Readiness Centers to hold 120 days of supply for critical medical materiel, building supply chain resiliency so VHA can sustain continuous services and protect employees.

So, you all have been taking care of Veterans and their families even as you have been protecting the workforce. And to safely maintain continuous services in line with national policy, we’re fully implementing the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing, and OMB’s Memorandum on Agency Model Safety Principles.

We recently published our COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plan. It applies CDC guidelines and other public health measures to slow the spread of the virus—mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, vaccinations, among other measures. And our COVID-19 Coordination Team is coordinating all elements of our safety strategy across the department to ensure protocols are in place and protecting our people. We’ll keep updating mask-wearing requirements and other COVID-19-related safety measures with clear department-level guidelines giving our people safe workplaces. And when it’s time, employees can begin returning to work in a safe, cautious, iterative, and data-driven way.

I’m counting on all of you to help in this. Our union partners are subject-matter experts on employee safety. It’s why all of our union contracts have robust and detailed safety articles. When it comes to safety programs and processes VA-wide, during the pandemic and beyond, I need you to be part of the discussion. I need you to contribute to the best solutions.

It bears repeating what President Biden has said, “The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class.” “Unions,” he said, “lift up workers, both union and non-union.” And let’s not forget who has been great in providing support to the middle class in terms of benefits and world class health care: The Department of Veterans Affairs.

So, I’m fighting like hell every day to ensure we serve Veterans as well as they have served this country. And I’m going to fight like hell to make sure you’re part of that effort. I look forward to working with all of you as we move forward, together.

Good luck in the conference. I’m glad it’s back in action.

God bless all of you. May God bless our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.