As the United States partially reopens despite continued spread of the coronavirus, schools, businesses, and other gathering places are struggling to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), frequent deep cleanings, and sanitization supplies. These infection controls are especially important in healthcare and long-term care facilities, which house large numbers of potentially vulnerable people. The VA healthcare system has been especially challenged in this regard, as we discussed in our recent article about COVID-19 case clusters at VA facilities. This month, reports have emerged describing how policy changes made in 2017 left VA facilities short on housekeepers and without proper infection control supplies.
In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act went into place, establishing an Accountability Office with the authority to terminate employees who do not meet performance standards. Over 8,000 VA employees have been terminated as part of this accountability drive, but most were low-level employees guilty of minor offenses like tardiness. According to the American Federation of Government Employees, the number one job targeted in these firings was housekeeping, with nursing in second place. The majority of VA housekeepers are veterans themselves, caring for those with whom they served. This created large numbers of housekeeping vacancies, leading to unsanitary conditions and higher rates of infection at VA facilities before the pandemic even started.
Now, housekeepers at understaffed VA facilities must face long hours of deep cleaning, sometimes without adequate PPE, while earning lower wages than housekeepers in the private sector. Unsanitary conditions at VA facilities have been a concern for many years, but during this public health crisis, the VA’s failure to retain adequate housekeeping staff poses an enormous risk to veteran health and safety. According to the most recent data (from 2019), 40 percent of VA hospitals faced severe housekeeping shortages. We will continue to monitor the pandemic situation at VA facilities closely, and urge Congress and the VA to take more urgent measures to fill vacancies and attain the necessary standard of sanitation to protect our veterans.