Udall, Heinrich Urge President Trump to Exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs from Hiring Freeze

Federal hiring freeze will delay veterans’ access to care and benefits, and hurt veterans seeking federal jobs

WASHINGTON D.C. – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) joined 51 of their Senate and House colleagues in urging President Trump to exempt the entire Department of Veterans Affairs and all veterans seeking federal jobs from his executive order that freezes federal hiring. In a letter to the president, the lawmakers emphasized the devastating impacts that a hiring freeze would have on veterans and their families by delaying their access to health care and the resolution of their disability claims, and providing fewer jobs for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life.

"We are deeply troubled that your freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees will have a negative and disproportionate impact on our nation’s veterans. As such, we urge you to take stock of this hiring freeze’s effect on our nation’s veterans and exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as well as any veterans seeking federal employment from your Memorandum Regarding the Hiring Freeze," the lawmakers wrote. "Our nation’s veterans should not be made to sacrifice any more than they already have while you review federal hiring."  

The hiring freeze will add to chronic workforce shortages that the VA currently suffers from, exacerbating the shortage of doctors, nurses and administrative staff who are needed at VA facilities to reduce wait times across the country and make payments on time. Nationally, there are more than 45,000 vacancies in the VA. In New Mexico, there are 40 vacancies currently being advertised, including openings in El Paso, which serves New Mexicans.

Right now, there are 450,000 veterans awaiting a benefits decision, including over 2,700 in New Mexico. These veterans are waiting for the VA to fulfill the government’s commitment and provide the benefits they earned while serving the country. Dr. David Shulkin, Trump’s VA Secretary nominee, has said "I need to fill every one of those openings in order to make sure that we're doing the very best for our veterans." 

"Our nation’s veterans cannot afford an unnecessary wait to receive the benefits they have earned serving our country.  We urge you to re-evaluate this hiring freeze and take into account the effect it will have on veterans who will have to wait longer for earned benefits -- whether it’s disability, survivor or education benefits, or whether it’s vocational rehabilitation or job training services," the lawmakers added.

Additionally, the lawmakers emphasized the impact the freeze will have on veterans applying for federal jobs. Veterans make up 31 percent of the federal workforce and receive a hiring preference when applying to these jobs. 

The full text of the letter is available here and copied below.  

Dear President Trump:

We are deeply troubled that your freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees will have a negative and disproportionate impact on our nation’s veterans.  As such, we urge you to take stock of this hiring freeze’s effect on our nation’s veterans and exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as well as any veterans seeking federal employment from your Memorandum Regarding the Hiring Freeze. 

While there can be no debate that the federal government, including VA, should be more efficient in its delivery of services to all Americans, a hiring freeze at VA will delay veterans’ access to health care and resolution of their disability claims, which for many of our nation’s heroes provides a sole source of income to them and their families.  Our nation’s veterans should not be made to sacrifice any more than they already have while you review federal hiring. 

Have you considered how this hiring freeze will affect VA’s ability to provide veterans with access to health care?  For years, VA has faced chronic medical personnel shortages, particularly in rural areas.  As a result of the hiring freeze, the Department’s inability to hire clinicians and the administrative support teams to schedule appointments will have a direct impact on the number of veterans on waiting lists at facilities across the country.  Further, this will have an impact on community providers, who will be forced to continue waiting for delayed payments without VA having the ability to hire employees to process payments on their claims.  We urge you to re-evaluate this hiring freeze and take into account veterans who will face increased delay in accessing health care.

Have you considered how this hiring freeze will affect VA’s ability to provide veterans with decisions on their appeals for disability compensation?  More than 450,000 appeals are pending – that means that more than 450,000 veterans are waiting for the U.S. government to provide them with benefits earned while a disability was incurred while serving in our armed services.  Our nation’s veterans cannot afford an unnecessary wait to receive the benefits they have earned serving our country.  We urge you to re-evaluate this hiring freeze and take into account the effect it will have on veterans who will have to wait longer for earned benefits -- whether it’s disability, survivor or education benefits, or whether it’s vocational rehabilitation or job training services. 

Have you considered how this hiring freeze will impact those veterans who apply to federal jobs?  Veterans comprise 31 percent of the federal workforce and most receive a well-earned hiring preference when they apply for federal jobs.  An across-the-board freeze will hurt these veterans – many of whom are transitioning from military to civilian service, and many of whom are disabled. The negative impacts of this freeze will be felt across the country and disproportionately affect those men and women who have honorably served in our military.

Should you move forward with this hiring freeze, one issue that must not be overlooked is VA’s little-known mission of providing support to national efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and man-made catastrophes.  We urge you to classify VA’s delivery of health care as a national security and public safety responsibility, as outlined in your Presidential Memorandum Regarding Hiring Freeze, and exempt it from this hiring freeze.  To do otherwise is to jeopardize the national security and public safety of our nation. 

Mr. President, this hiring freeze will have a dramatic impact on the quality of health care and benefits veterans receive.  We urge you to reconsider.