Largest Federal Employee Union Pushes OSHA to Investigate Legionella Reports at Illinois Veterans Hospital

Labor activists at Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Hospital Sound Alarm on Elevated Legionella Levels

WASHINGTON— The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take a deeper look at reports of elevated levels of Legionella at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital in Illinois.  In a Feb. 28 letter to Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels, the union urges the agency to inspect reports of Legionella and “ensure that a process exists for regular testing, and that appropriate actions for remediation take place.”

Union activists at AFGE Veterans Affairs (VA) Local 781 notified the AFGE national office of its concerns that unsafe levels of the bacteria may be present at the hospital. The letter to OSHA explains that patients and staff can be at risk if the proper precautions aren’t taken and that the VA’s track record on handling Legionella has been poor in recent years. The VA came under heavy scrutiny for its mismanagement of the Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA that has been linked to death of five veterans.

“AFGE wants proper testing and effective remediation for the safety of our members and the veterans we serve,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “If the VA is to stand by its delivery of world-class care, it must be diligent in maintaining its facilities and protecting those who are treated and work in its hospitals and other sites.”

An August 2013 report by the VA’s Office of Inspector General found that many VA facilities tested positive for Legionella and that current methods of hyper-chlorination and super heating were not sustainable in treating the water.  A number of concerns are outlined in the letter to OSHA including possible long-term health concerns for patients and staff who are exposed to hyper-chlorinated water, the VA’s questionable testing methods that do not adequately identify the strain of Legionella present, and the agency’s failure to follow guidelines delineated by its own inspector general.

“We cannot afford for the VA to drag its feet when it comes to patient care,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. “The concerns that our members have brought to light must be addressed swiftly. OSHA’s immediate involvement will ensure that the proper testing is done and the water is safe for our patients and staff.”

The union’s letter asks for OSHA’s intervention on this matter and acknowledges its shared concern for a healthy workplace and the safety of America’s veterans treated by dedicated public servants at VA facilities.

A link to the letter can be found here.

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The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union, representing 670,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia. AFGE’s National Veterans Affairs Council represents 220,000 employees within the Department of Veterans Affairs. For the latest AFGE news and information, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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AFGE Activist Decries Problems with VA’s Benefits Claims System in Testimony Before House VA Committee

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AFGE Local 1738 Shop Steward Eric Jenkins testified Feb. 5 before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs regarding the current state of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) benefit claims processing technology. Jenkins’ testimony focused on greater communication between AFGE and the agency regarding improving the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), the impact of frequent system shutdowns on the ability to process veterans’ claims in a timely fashion, and improving the agency’s broken work credit system.

“AFGE consistently receives reports from members at regional offices nationwide regarding shutdowns and technical problems with VBMS. We would like to remain a strong partner with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to improve VBMS to better process claims and to make the system more user friendly,” testified Jenkins. “AFGE requests the establishment of a working group to improve VBMS, which would include AFGE, management and Veterans Service Organizations’ (VSOs) stakeholders.” AFGE also recommends that VBA develop a contingency plan that will maintain productivity and credit employees working via alternate systems when VBMS is shutdown.

The union is also critical of the current work credit system that is not based on data and does not accurately account for the complexities associated with the claims process. Feedback from AFGE members indicates that the current system deprives work credit for numerous required tasks, increases workplace stress, puts pressure on employees to rush through claims, and devalues the importance of evaluating claims on their individual merits.

“The absence of a valid work credit system exacerbates the well documented problem of VBA managers manipulating backlog data to improve performance measures,” said Jenkins. “Veterans who fought for this nation deserve to have their claims processed in an accurate and timely manner.”

AFGE urges the committee to adopt the approach set forth by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders that would establish a working group tasked with evaluating and recommending changes to the current work credit system based on data.

Jenkins is a 15-year veteran of the Marine Corps, a service-connected veteran and has worked for VBA for nine years.

Jenkins’ full testimony can be found here: http://veterans.house.gov/witness-testimony/mr-eric-jenkins.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation Will Join Local Veterans’ To Unveil New Report Impacting Battle Mountain Sanitarium

Media Contact: Virgil McDill, 202.294.9187, vmcdill@savingplaces.org

What:            Representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation will join military veterans, elected officials and local preservationists at a press event to unveil a significant new national report regarding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The report includes recommendations that would directly impact Battle Mountain Sanitarium.

Who:              Don DeVries, Mayor, City of Hot Springs

Jenny Buddenborg, Senior Field Officer, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Don Ackerman, Army Veteran, The American Legion Post 71

Pat Russell, Army Veteran, AFGE Local 1539 President, Save the VA Committee Chairman

When:           10am on Thursday, November 7, 2013

Where:          Base of the Battle Mountain Sanitarium Grand Staircase (adjacent to Golden West commercial building).  Rain location is The American Legion Hall at 1045 Jennings Ave.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Battle Mountain Sanitarium one of America’s National Treasures in 2012. National Treasures are endangered places of national significance where the National Trust is committed to a long-term effort to preserve a place. The local Save the VA committee has been working to save the National Historic Landmark campus since the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a proposal to close it in December 2011.

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VA Union President Blasts Lawmakers on Failure to Reopen Government and Restore Full Services to Veterans

American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council President Alma Lee today issued the following statement regarding the lockout of Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees:

“Some of our lawmakers should be ashamed of themselves. They have allowed for the lockout of vital public servants for now 11 days. Added to the hundreds of thousands of employees who have been sent home are 7,000 Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) workers who assist in the processing of veterans’ benefits claims.

“Historically, we have taken great pride in our ability to serve our nation’s heroes who have worn the uniform and fought valiantly for our freedoms. To look at where we are today, with politicians more interested in political posturing than providing support to our veterans, it is an unspeakable travesty. With a record-high claims backlog and more of our soldiers leaving military service, we need to make it our top priority to ensure our service to America’s veterans is fully funded and operational. We cannot do that under this current government shutdown.

“The furlough of thousands of VBA workers means claims processing will be delayed, quality review teams will not be on the job to ensure that claims are completed accurately, appeals are not being processed, and there is no access to in-person or over the phone consultations at VBA regional offices. In many cases, veterans cannot access VA health care and other VA services, or receive their preference for federal employment until their benefits are awarded. In the wake of this shutdown, education and pension call centers are also closed, hurting veterans who are looking for assistance with their GI Bill benefits, and low income veterans and widows.

“Our elected leaders must end this lockout now. Our employees want to be on the job providing service to our veterans and reducing this backlog. AFGE VA activists from health care workers to cemetery employees will continue to hold rallies and sound the alarm on the mockery that is being made of our legislative system. At the rate we are going, those who have escaped this round of furloughs will be the next ones to have their jobs on the chopping block. We are all touched by someone who’s been impacted by this shutdown. The time is now to reopen the government and put all public servants back to work.”

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Vote Vets Releases Ad Urging for an End to the Government Shutdown

IMPORTANT MESSAGE FOR GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES: This information should not be downloaded using government equipment, read during duty time or sent to others using government equipment, because it suggests action to be taken in support or against legislation. Do not use your government email address or government phone in contacting your Member of Congress.

 

 

 

 

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Veterans Benefits Administration Employee Joins Senate Press Conference on Shutdown’s Impact on Veterans’ Services

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American Federation of Government Employees Local 940 Vice President Eleanor Davis Wescott, today joined Senate leaders for a news conference that highlighted the effect the government shutdown is having on the benefits and services  provided to the nation’s veterans. Wescott has been a ratings specialist at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) for 22 years and represents employees at the Philadelphia Regional Office.

“As a veteran I take great pride in the services my colleagues and I provide for America’s heroes,” said Wescott. “Unfortunately, because of the shutdown, more than one third of the workforce has been sent home. Our folks in public contact cannot provide in person customer service to our veterans who call or walk in the door. Our quality review team, which provides oversight to ensure claims are processed accurately, is not at work.  Many others who develop and rate claims are also not on the job.”

The news conference, organized by Sen. Bernie Sanders, also featured remarks from Sens. Jon Tester, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono, Mark Begich and Sherrod Brown. This week 7,000 VBA employees have been furloughed because of a lack of agency funding triggered by the government shutdown.

“Nearly 52% of VBA workers are veterans themselves,” said Wescott. We come to work with mission specific efforts to reduce the backlog for our fellow veterans. With this furlough, we cannot meet our mission. It is very disheartening when I cannot give back to those who have sacrificed for our country.”

VBA has stated that veterans will stop receiving their benefits if the shutdown continues into late October.

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VA Employee Union Lauds Rep. Walz’s Introduction of the Military Reserve Jobs Act

Bill would ensure fair treatment for prospective and current federal employees with veteran status

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) applauds Rep. Timothy Walz of Minnesota for introducing H.R. 2785, the Military Reserve Jobs Act. The bill, whose original cosponsors include Reps. Jackie Speier, Kerry Bentivolio and Jeff Denham, would extend veterans’ preference rights under the Veterans Employment Opportunity Act (VEOA) to applicants for VA medical professional jobs.

Currently, veterans applying for Title 38 positions with the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system have no recourse if the agency fails to take into account their preference points. This inequality impacts the vast majority of VA healthcare positions involving patient care including doctors, registered nurses, physician assistants, social workers, psychologists, physical therapist, chiropractors and pharmacists.

“AFGE and its National Veterans Affairs Council have fought for 10 years to have this gross oversight in the law corrected,” said AFGE NVAC President Alma Lee. “Employees covered by the Title 38 personnel system are short-changed when it comes to many of the rights afforded to their Title 5 counterparts. We are vigorously working with lawmakers to get these issues corrected. H.R. 2785 represents a critical first step in addressing this unfair situation.”

Rep. Walz’s Military Reserve Jobs Act would also extend veterans’ preference to military reservists who seek federal employment.

“Under the current law our nation’s veterans who return from military service and join the civilian workforce to care for their fellow veterans at VA healthcare facilitates are subjected to disparate treatment when it comes to hiring and promotions,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “It is a terrible injustice to those who’ve served this country and we are pleased that Rep. Walz has introduced legislation to correct this matter. It is our duty to ensure that when veterans come to work for the federal government that their status is respected and honored in all terms of employment.”

AFGE will begin reaching out to other lawmakers for their support on this important legislation.

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