VA Rethinks Pay, Benefits for Workforce as Agency Faces High Employee Turnover

The Dept. of Veterans Affairs is rolling out a 10-point human infrastructure plan aimed at helping the agency recruit and retain in-demand workers at a time when the agency is facing record turnover among health care employees. The VA is looking to maximize bonus and retention incentives for current employees and make more VA employees eligible for monthly childcare subsidy benefits. The agency is also lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would raise pay caps for registered nurses and physician assistants, and is taking steps to bring new hires onboard more quickly.

Considering how many agency nurses are eligible to retire, VA Head Denis Richard McDonough said the VA will need to hire about 15,000 nurses a year for the next five years. The turnover rate is so high, he said, because private-sector hospitals offer bonuses and retention payments that VA can’t match.

“All of that is unsustainable, and it’s going to mean serious losses if we don’t act soon,” McDonough said.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee recently passed the VA Nurse and Physical Assistant Retention and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act, which would increase the salary limit for VA’s advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants from Level Four of the Executive Schedule to Level One. It would also increase the salary limit from Level Four to Level Two of the Executive Schedule for all other registered nurses. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Illinois), who introduced the bill, said advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants could make up to $226,300, while other registered nurses would make up $203,700, if the RAISE Act passed. Those positions are currently capped at $176,300 a year.

“Due to laws that put a cap on how much we can pay VA employees, many folks can literally walk across the street and make $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 more than they can at VA,” McDonough said.

The VA is also taking steps to maximize bonuses and retention incentives for high-performing health care employees. McDonough said Congress allowed VA to waive limits on bonuses for certain work done during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the agency is currently “using that authority to reward employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.” The Biden Administration has also authorized the VA to pay retention incentives of up to 50% of an employee’s base salary, a 25% increase from previous levels.

“Neither nurses nor anyone else should have to sacrifice pay to serve vets, so these steps are crucial for keeping our people right here where you belong,” McDonough said. VA is also permanently raising the salary cap for employees who qualify for $500 a month in childcare subsidies. McDonough said the agency will raise the cap to include families who make up to $149,000 a year. That’s up from the previous cap for employees whose families earned less than $89,000 a year.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about doing your jobs well and paying for quality care for your kids,” McDonough said. “This initiative will help us grow future leaders, and we’d love to replicate it across VA, because we want you to grow your careers right here at home.”

The Veterans Health Administration has also set up a VHA REBOOT task force, a “team of employees, for employees,” focused on coming up with recommendations on how to improve work conditions, promote work-life balance, increase scheduling flexibilities and reduce burnout. The task force, McDonough said, is “an ongoing effort,” but has already developed ideas that include establishing chief wellbeing officers at VA hospitals.

Jory Heckman is a reporter at Federal News Network covering U.S. Postal Service, IRS, big data and technology issues.

Content provided by Blake Hyfield. Blake Hyfield is the post service officer for the local VFW and American Legion posts. He can be reached at