Opinion: This Labor Day, Thank VA Employees for Keeping Veterans Safe

Each Labor Day we honor the American workers who contribute so much to this prosperous nation, and this year, the nearly 400,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs deserve special recognition.

I have visited VA facilities in several states during the last few months. At each stop I have met dedicated employees who never quit serving veterans even in the face of fear and uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

In Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Arizona, I have met the people who demonstrate every day how a commitment to our mission results in better health outcomes for the veterans we serve.

There is no better way to explain the care and service veterans received during the pandemic than through the actions and words of our employees. Many of our front-line medical staffers correctly view themselves as first responders who feel an obligation to run toward the COVID crisis, not away from it.

One nurse practitioner in Wisconsin said his job was to “rise up to the occasion,” while a nurse in Michigan said her job was to “answer a call” when she was needed.

This spirit of service reflects a fundamental shift in how we do business at VA. We are now years removed from VA scandals of the past.

The COVID crisis exemplified that cultural change in real time. Instead of waiting for difficult situations to arise, we listened to our staff members on the ground who recommended closing our VA-run nursing homes to outside visitors.

It was a dramatic move, made early, that saved lives. Many of these VA-run nursing homes have had no incidents of COVID at all, and our expertise in this area was sought out by many state-run nursing homes.

Meanwhile, veterans’ trust in VA care is near record-high levels. Almost 90 percent of veterans trust the care they receive, according to our most recent survey. Listening to our staff did more than just improve the care we deliver to patients. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it improved morale during very trying times.

In the year after the VA scandals in the past, this department was ranked 17th in a survey of “best places to work” in the federal government. In the last two years of that survey VA jumped up sixth place. According to Forbes, VA is now a “best employer” in 17 states.

There is no reward we can offer these devoted staff members that is proportional to the effort they have given during this extraordinary year. There is, however, a bright spot for new parents, courtesy of legislation signed into law in 2019. We are pleased to announce that starting next month, eligible federal employees will be offered up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Our VA staff is part of our very large family and has worked creatively and diligently to comfort veterans and their families. They have earned time to spend with their own families during important milestones in their lives.

I encourage anyone who meets these brave members of our VA family to thank them for the work they do.

This nation speaks reverently of the veterans who put the burden of defending freedom on their backs and is unified in its desire to care for these heroes when they return home. VA is where that happens.

This Labor Day, thank VA employees for carrying out this important mission, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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