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

Speech on Investing in VA Employees
Charleston, SC
February 9, 2022

Thank you, Scott [Isaaks], for that warm welcome and for all you do. My thanks as well to everyone who helped us gather safely this afternoon. And, most of all, to the VA colleagues who have joined us today—here in Charleston and watching across the country.

Today is about what we’re doing to invest in you: VA’s number one asset, our great public servants.

I want to begin today with a story—the story of Alonzo Pinckney, Jr.

Alonzo is a decorated Army Veteran. He’s a husband, father of four, and grandpa of twelve. And, like millions of others over the past couple years, he got sick with COVID-19.

At first, his case wasn’t so bad. But then his breathing became labored, so he decided to come to this hospital—just, he thought, for a ten-minute checkup.

But that checkup quickly turned into an overnight stay. His slightly-labored breathing quickly turned into breathing with a respirator. And his prognosis quickly deteriorated from good to bad to worse.

Before long, Alonzo was in a medically-induced coma, and his family was informed that Alonzo’s lungs might not be able to sustain life. It didn’t look like he’d make it.

But after 120 days in that ICU back there—120 days of ups and downs, days when it looked like Alonzo would never breathe on his own again, and days when it seemed his cognitive function would never return—Alonzo pulled through.

He’s at home right now—not so far down the road from here—on his way to a full recovery. He’s walking again, he’s got his voice back. And I hear from his family that he’s using that voice, in part, to talk about how grateful he is for the folks right here—the folks who saved his life.

In fact, Alonzo would be the first to tell you that that story isn’t just his story.

It’s the story of the physicians who cared for him.

It’s the story of the nurses who looked after him, played his favorite reggae music, and held up the phone at 4:00 am every day so his wife could pray with him.

It’s the story of the housekeeping aids who kept his environment clean and safe; of the nutritionists and food service workers who kept Alonzo strong; and of all the other frontline workers here who worked late hours, sacrificed time away from their families, and risked their own lives to save Alonzo’s life.

And the thing is, that type of work—that type of impact—isn’t the exception among VA employees: it’s the rule.

But don’t take my word for it—ask the Vets we serve: Veteran trust scores across VA rose by 3% last quarter alone, and outpatient trust scores are now above 90%.

That’s because VA employees like you fight like hell for Vets like Alonzo, every day. It’s because you provide Vets with timely access to world-class health care, earned benefits, and the lasting resting place they deserve. And it’s because you have battled through the pandemic, getting VA to the point where—despite everything—we are now delivering more care, more benefits, and more services to more Veterans than ever before.

You know, today marks one year since I was sworn in at VA—and I don’t think there’s anything that I’m more proud of than that...

... the fact that, in the midst of the pandemic, VA didn’t weaken or slow down. No, VA got stronger—and took care of Vets when they needed it most.

But as proud as I am of that accomplishment, I didn’t do it. You did it.

And that’s why I’m here today: to recognize all you’ve done, and discuss what our country is doing to invest in you.

Because we need to take care of you—the great people who take care of our Nation’s Vets.

But look, right now, I know that your lives—and your jobs—are harder than ever before.

You’ve been doing your work while balancing the challenges of COVID-life and grieving so many Vets, colleagues, family members, and friends. You’ve had to cover for thousands of colleagues who were sick and unable to work, meaning even longer hours and later nights. And—due to unprecedented demand for frontline workers—salaries have grown to historic highs in the private sector, but they haven’t moved at VA.

These are real challenges—both for you and our Nation—and we need to address them now, before it’s too late.

So, today, I’m announcing ten steps that we’re taking to invest in you: our incredible workforce.

First, we’re going to work with Congress to invest in your wages.

This is important not only because VA workers like you deserve it, but also because it’s critical to the functioning of VA. Here’s why: due to laws that put a cap on how much we can pay VA employees, many folks can literally walk across the street and make 10, 15, 20 thousand dollars more than they can at VA. Some registered nurses here in Charleston, for example, can make $15,000 more by going to the private sector—and that number is as high as $40,000 in other markets.

On top of that, due to the pay caps, there’s a point at which VA nurses can get promoted but can no longer get the raises that are supposed to come with those promotions. So, they’re taking on more responsibility for the same pay.

All of that is unsustainable, and it’s going to mean serious losses if we don’t act soon.

Fortunately, the White House has already begun to act—giving a much-deserved raise to the housekeeping aids, food service workers, and many others who make VA run—by raising the federal worker minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But we can’t stop there. That’s why we’re urging Congress to pass the RAISE Act and other legislative proposals that would empower us to pay you every penny you’re worth.

Second, we’re maximizing bonuses and retention incentives to reward you for your excellent work.

Look, right now, our nursing turnover rate is the highest it’s been in 15 years—15 years! When you factor in how many of our nurses are eligible to retire, that means we’ll have to hire about 15,000 nurses a year for the next 5 years. And, in part, that turnover rate is so high because private sector hospitals have been able to offer bonuses and retention payments that we couldn’t match.

But we’re doing everything we can to stop this trend in its tracks.

Thanks to Congress, we can waive limits on bonuses for certain work done during the pandemic—and we’re using that authority to reward employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Also, the White House has authorized us to pay retention incentives of up to 50% of employee base salary—a 25% increase from previous levels.

Neither nurses nor anyone else should have to sacrifice pay to serve Vets, so these steps are crucial for keeping our people right here where you belong.

Third, we’re increasing opportunities to advance at VA. 

NCA is leading the way on this by prioritizing the reclassification of the occupational series for cemetery representatives—which is a fancy way of saying “increasing opportunities for promotions and raises.”

This initiative will help us grow future leaders, and we’d love to replicate it across VA. Because we want you to grow your careers right here at home. 

Fourth, we’re expediting the hiring process.

When employees leave VA, we need to fill those positions as quickly as possible—or employees like you will have to do even more work at a time when your plates are already overfull.

We’re hard at work on this—revising qualification standards to recruit nurses and streamline their onboarding; working to better leverage Veteran hiring authorities; and, perhaps most importantly, completely redesigning our national onboarding process with one goal in mind: getting you the help you need when you need it.

Fifth, we’re offering more flexibility in where many of you work.

If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that you work together to get the job done for Vets wherever you are.

So, as we look to the future of work, we’ll be asking managers to use all available authorities to establish a new normal at VA—one that maximizes your flexibility to work outside your traditional workspace whenever and wherever possible.

Sixth, we’re helping cover the cost of childcare.

For years, VA has offered $500 a month in childcare subsidies to employees whose family income is less than $89,000 per year. Now, we’re permanently raising that cap to include families who make up to $149,000 per year.

Because you shouldn’t have to worry about doing your jobs well and paying for quality care for your kids.

Seventh, we’re investing in your well-being.

We’ve already begun this effort by establishing the VHA REBOOT taskforce: a team of employees, for employees, that is developing innovative recommendations for how to improve work conditions, promote work-life balance, increase scheduling flexibilities, and reduce burnout—including ideas like establishing Chief Well-Being Officers at hospitals.

This is an ongoing effort, and more recommendations are coming soon.

Eighth, we’re investing in your education.

We want to help you grow—so we’re putting a lot of time, effort, and funding into our scholarship programs—which helped pay for school for more than 2,300 employees last year alone.

Additionally, for those of you paying off student debt, President Biden has paused student loan payments until May of this year—and he’s made it easier for federal employees to eliminate all student debt after 10 years of federal service and payments. I should add that for those of you who are Veterans, months spent on active duty do count toward that total.

So, I encourage you to submit your loan forgiveness application at studentaid.gov/PSLF before the October 31 deadline. That’s studentaid.gov/PSLF—before Halloween.

Ninth, we’re embedding Inclusion-Diversity-Equity-and-Access into everything we do.

We’re already in the process of hiring a Chief Diversity Officer—and we’re integrating IDEA principles into hiring, position management, and talent management. Because we need to make sure that VA is welcoming for all employees—and that VA looks like the strong, diverse country we serve.

And last but in no way least, we’re laser-focused on protecting you from COVID-19.

That means offering all employees N-95 masks, which we’re doing this month. And it means enforcing our vaccine requirement for health care personnel, thus giving you the peace of mind to know that whenever you set foot in a VHA facility, we have done everything in our power to keep you—and the Vets you serve—safe.

Now, I know that might sound like a lot—but those ten things are still just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our efforts to invest in you.

This is a top priority for us, and we will keep pushing until every job at VA is a good job—not only because that’s the right thing to do, but because investing in you is an investment in Veterans. 

Now before I close, I’d like to come back to Alonzo’s story for a moment. After the folks at this hospital saved Alonzo’s life, his son wrote them a letter.

Here’s what it said:

“Because of your hard work, our family had a husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, and best friend to hug this holiday season. You have given us a second chance to right whatever wrongs that may have existed, a second chance at laughter, a second chance at a grandson looking into the stands of a sporting event to find his grandfather cheering him on. We have almighty God and you to thank for this opportunity. You will forever be a part of the Pinckney family.”

That, right there, is what it’s all about. That’s what we invest in when we invest in you. And that’s what VA workers like you—in hospitals and regional benefit offices and cemeteries across the country—have done day-after-day over the past two years.

So, to the employees here today and watching across the country: thank you, for everything. It’s the honor of my life to work with you. And, with Congress as our partner and President Biden leading the way, I promise that we’re going to invest in you, look out for you, and fight like hell for you—just like you fight for our Nation’s Vets.

Because, as Alonzo’s son said when we told him about this speech, “VA employees don’t deserve anything but the best.” And—for the sake of our Nation and its Veterans—we cannot, will not, ever settle for giving you anything less.

May God bless you—and the Vets, families, caregivers, and survivors you serve.

Thank you.