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VA Human Resources Personnel Got $43.5 Million in Bonuses Plus Pay Raises Under PACT Act

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The Department of Veterans Affairs paid $43.5 million in bonuses to more than 6,500 human resources specialists last year under allowances stipulated in the PACT Act, an amount the department’s chief human capital officer described as “significant.”

Documents obtained by Military.com through a Freedom of Information Act request show the department paid an average of $6,598.13 in critical skills incentives, or CSIs, to 6,517 human resources specialists in the Veterans Health and Veterans Benefits Administrations through June 2023 in addition to salary increases under PACT Act provisions.

The bonuses were authorized under the legislation, which expanded health care and benefits to thousands of veterans sickened by environmental toxins. But the large amount concerned some employees at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., after VA officials awarded large bonuses to hundreds of VA executives last year.

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In an email sent July 5 to an unnamed VA senior official, Steve Miska, the department’s PACT Act transitional director, said the recipient, whom Miska addressed as “sir,” had mentioned that since “the price tag of the critical skills incentive for VBA and VHA leaders might cause some concern,” the person should know that a large amount was spent on the HR specialists’ bonuses, also known as CSIs.

“I wanted to pass on from [VA Chief Human Capital Officer] Tracey Therit: ‘CSIs were processed for HR specialists and we spent a significant amount,'” Miska wrote.

But Miska added, there was “no blowback to my knowledge,” quoting Therit. “All admins had money to fund. … The information is in the [Compliance, Reporting and Auditing] report that went to [the Office of Management and Budget]. Congress will see the data if they read the report. Nothing was sent to them in advance of processing the CSIs.”

Within six months of VHA HR specialists receiving the bonuses, many received a 15% pay increase, known as a special salary rate. The raises, which went into effect in January, were given to nearly 8,000 HR specialists, as well as HR assistants.

As of April 30, the VHA employed 8,333 HR specialists and 1,427 HR assistants. According to data provided by the VA, the VHA currently has 598 vacant HR specialist and 121 vacant HR assistant positions.

VBA has 544 HR specialists and 123 assistants, with 81 specialist vacancies and 18 assistant positions, according to the VA.

The PACT Act allowed the VA to provide critical skills incentives for a six-month period to VHA employees through October. The increase in salary under the special rate was awarded after the allowances for the CSIs expired.

While special salary rates are normally set by the Office of Management and Budget, the PACT Act also gave the VA the authority to set them for non-medical positions in the VHA.

At the VBA, the VA requested that OMB provide special salary rates for HR specialists and assistants, and they were “the only VBA employees to receive salary increases,” VA officials said in a statement to Military.com.

The VA has paid out 40,887 critical skills incentives to employees since starting to award them last year, the majority of which went to employees in short-staffed occupations.

The VA inspector general reported this month that the department paid $10.8 million in improper incentive bonuses to 182 senior executives at its headquarters last year ranging in size from $39,000 to more than $100,000 for each of seven executives in the VHA.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA under secretary for health, approved 148 bonuses, while Joshua Jacobs, VA under secretary for benefits, approved 34 to senior government employees. The inspector general found that Elnahal repeatedly failed to tell VA Secretary Denis McDonough about those bonuses while informing him of bonuses to field employees.

Jacobs, on the other hand, provided McDonough memos describing plans to pay the critical skills incentives to senior executives at the headquarters and field offices.

Under the PACT Act, the bonuses were not allowed to go to political appointees or any senior executive service members who were non-career appointees or were serving in a position that is “political in character.”

The PACT Act was signed in August 2022 to expand health care and benefits for millions of veterans sickened by exposure to burn pits and other environmental pollutants while serving overseas in support of U.S. operations.

The legislation authorized the VA to hire or provide incentives for employees in hard-to-fill posts, including HR, information technology, law enforcement and housekeeping, to ensure the department had sufficient staff to support the influx of newly eligible veterans.

In fiscal 2023, the VHA staff grew by 7.4% with the hiring of roughly 61,000 people, for a net increase of 28,000. The same year, more than 6,000 employees were hired by the VBA.

McDonough has described the critical skills incentives as key to attracting HR specialists needed to hire the additional personnel required to support the PACT Act beneficiaries.

The VA has made an effort not only to attract qualified new hires but also to shorten the period of time it takes between hiring them and processing them to their new positions.

“I think we are, importantly, seeing our ability to hire and attract HR professionals, which I’ve said in here, in this room, many times, is really the key to this expansion of our personnel,” McDonough said during a press conference in March. “We are becoming much more competitive in attracting those personnel because of these authorities.”

This year, the VHA has hired 444 HR specialists, 280 of whom are participating in a 13-month HR Specialist Training and Accelerated Readiness training program.

But overall hiring has slowed significantly since the beginning of the year, according to VA spokesman Gary Kunich, with 175 specialist hires in October, decreasing to eight each in March and April.

About 70% have been internal selections, he added.

The VBA continues to actively recruit HR specialists, having hired 133 this year, roughly 18% of whom have been internal selections, according to Kunich.

VA data shows the department has slashed the number of job openings by 22% compared with last year at the same time, and it has seen a 13% drop in applications. Job offers are up by 16%, but the number of people actually filling positions has declined by 9%.

Members of Congress have expressed concern about the proposed reduction of roughly 10,000 employees this year from the VA workforce.

Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., led a group of 15 other senators in a letter May 8 asking Senate appropriators to require the VA to provide a detailed report on any reductions that would affect VA medical care and services in their budget legislation.

“Inconsistent staffing patterns put veterans’ health care quality and accessibility at risk and redirect employees’ attention from their defined job responsibilities to compensate for employment shortages,” the senators wrote.

During a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies on May 2, McDonough had assured senators the cuts would largely come from attrition, which was on par with previous years.

“We envisioned at the end of … September 2025 to be at about 10,000 fewer [full-time employees]. When all is said and done, frankly, that’s if you measure traditional attrition at VA. That’s not much different than traditional attrition. However, because retention is so high because you’ve been so generous to us for various pay enhancements, we have historically high retention, historically low quit rates,” McDonough said.

Related: VA’s PACT Act Management Could Use Lessons from 9/11 First Responders Legislation, Rand Says

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