For months, Department of Veterans Affairs staff have reported supply shortages and rationing and said they feared going to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some told Connecting Vets they were weighing their duty to veterans with fear for their families and considered quitting.
Now, department officials have said frontline medical employees at VA do not require hazard pay.
“Hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA,” VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Tuesday. "(VA) has a much lower employee infection rate (less than one percent) than other health care systems."
So far, VA says more than 1,300 of its staff have tested positive for the virus and at least 28 have died, department data shows.
VA previously dismissed VA staff reports of severe shortages and rationing of personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves. VA officials called employee accounts "false allegations" and repeatedly insisted that the department had adequate supplies, though internal VA memos echoed staff concerns.
Federal union leaders accused the department of "endangering" veteran patients and staff, and those allegations prompted a Department of Labor investigation.
But in recent weeks, department officials admitted shortages and "austerity measures." More recently, officials said they planned to lift previous limitations on supplies to allow some medical staff one mask per day, rather than one mask per week, and said each healthcare employee caring for patients directly would receive protective gear.
Previously, VA limited protective supplies only to medical staff treating COVID-19 and other high-risk patients.
VA employees have also described staff shortages at some department hospitals and clinics across the country, putting a greater burden on the staff who remain.
The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing hundreds of thousands of VA employees, said VA's attitude about hazard pay was an insult to frontline medical workers.
“It is preposterous to say that front-line VA employees are not due hazard pay because the VA has finally begun to provide employees with the protections they’ve been asking for since the beginning of this pandemic," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement Tuesday. "That is a slap in the face to the employees who continue to put their health at risk each day, to the 1,300 employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, and to the 28 families who have lost a loved one due to being exposed to the virus at work."
VA did not immediately respond to Connecting Vets' request for further comment on hazard pay for frontline staff.
Kelley accused VA of telling sick employees to continue to come to work after they were exposed to the virus, or to continue working until test results returned at VA hospitals in Alabama, California and Indiana. Kelley also accused VA of failing to report positive test results, risking further exposure.
Kelley said all frontline medical employees who may have been exposed to the virus on the job and who were not provided adequate protective gear during the pandemic "deserve hazard pay."
"Until the VA fixes their PPE and leave issues, they can not mitigate the hazard sufficiently," Kelley said. "It took numerous actions from AFGE members and our brothers and sisters at VA facilities across the country, and the calls for answers from Congress and the press, before VA leadership finally acknowledged the shortage of PPE – but by that time it was too late, employees were already sick and dying."