VA Employee Bonuses - Can I have one?

Post date: Mar 31, 2011 4:11:31 PM

Although this is old news, it bears repeating to remain in the forefront.

Courtesy of The American Legion Burn pit - September 30, 2009

Rewarding the few....overlooking those in the trenches. This week, the House Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on the VA’s employee bonus program. This hearing was primarily focused on a recent VA Inspector General investigation where they “discovered” $24 million in bonuses paid to VA’s Office of Information & Technology (OI&T). This isn’t the first time OI&T has been in the headlines, and I’m certain not the last. You might remember OI&T was one of many who fell under scrutiny during the veteran data loss. In the past year they were chastised for millions spent on programs, projects, or information technology initiatives that were behind schedule, over budget, or not necessary. But the inequity or outright abuse of the employee bonus program does not merely plague OI&T. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that two-thirds of federal employees benefitted from employee bonuses. In 2007, the AP reported that $3.8 million were awarded in bonuses to executive leaders within VA in 2006. Annually, VA employees nationwide receive millions of dollars in bonuses. The VA Handbook authorizes awards to recognize individual employees who make contributions in support of the mission, organizational goals and objectives, and VA’s Strategic Plan. It also directs the amount of combined basic pay, allowance, differential, bonus award, or other cash payment that an employee can receive during the calendar year is limited to the salary of Executive Level 1 (2008 – $191,300). I know a multitude of VA employees and former VA employees. I’ve listened to their views and understanding of the bonus structure, the overtime selection process and other salary issues. They point to a subjective protocol hashed out behind closed doors that produces favoritism, incongruity, and decreasing morale amongst the staff. VA employees trudge daily as hapless victims – byproducts of systemic mismanagement and a behemoth bureaucracy with no strong vision, clarity of mission, or understanding of how to meet the needs of the 21st century delivery of benefits to veterans. Tens of millions of dollars have been paid on bonuses to what end? We still wait on OI&T for a seamless VA medical record. We still wait for an era where the veteran or service officer could submit all of her information digitally and view the information within her file online. We hope for a semester to begin where a student veteran receives his education benefits early enough to pay all of his bills. We stand staring at an ever-increasing backlog of veterans claims while VA leadership spins the reason for the backlog towards the increasing number of veteran claims, lack of adequate training for new staff, or complex adjudication system. All the while, thousands of VA employees receive a bonus. Does every VA employee who receives a bonus deserve it? Absolutely not. When a bonus is determined based on a limited issuance of “fee-basis cards” you encourage VA staff to not decide what’s in the best interest of the patient, but rather the best interest of the veteran. When a performance based bonus system includes data such as the number of claims decided. You invite VA employees to make a decision just to put down another “tick mark.” It might not be the right decision and may be reconsidered upon appeal, but he/she got the credit and corresponding bonus in the meantime while the veteran suffered. When a VA employee is evaluated upon the number of veterans “served” through public contact, you implicitly create an environment where conversations are limited in time and scope. You limit the ability for an employee to discover the root of the issue or concern that brought the veteran to the VA in the first place. Yet these bonuses are issued because they recognize these employees who made these contributions. There are deserving employees in VA who should receive a bonus. They include some of those on the front lines caring for the patients at the clinic, proving that the VA health-care system is the best in the nation. They include those employees burying the veterans within the National Cemetery system and maintaining the final resting places of our nation’s heroes. There are even those within the benefits system who work tireless hours and realize each claim is not just a pile of papers but a real veteran or family member seeking assistance. These are the VA employees who should be receiving a bonus. When they contribute as part of a team that truly meets or exceeds our limited expectations, they should be compensated. I’m not criticizing an employee bonus program. I certainly wish I qualified for one. I’m complaining about a bonus program that appears to be as flawed as some parts of the VA itself. In the past year, we’ve paraded numerous CEOs before the media and Congress and criticized them for mismanaged employee compensation, golden parachutes, and employee bonuses. If we can criticize AIG, Fannie or Freddie on their bonus structure, why not the Federal government? The current VA bonus system rewards some VA employees not diligently working towards better service to America’s veterans while overlooking those in the trenches actually trying to deal with veterans, the claims backlog and other VA concerns. Find a bonus program that appropriately rewards these unsung heroes, and the VA, our veterans, and our nation will be better off.