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UNION CALLS OUT VA OFFICIAL

The employee union says the regional director at Bay Pines ignores many issues.

The employee union at the Department of Veterans Affairs' regional office at Bay Pines has taken a "no confidence" vote against the director of the office and accused managers of a hostile relationship with union workers.

Local 1594 of the American Federation of Government Employees took the vote last week against Kerrie Witty, the director of the VA's regional office near Seminole that handles disability claims for veterans from most of Florida, the Caribbean and part of Georgia.

The union accuses Witty of failing to address numerous issues raised in recent months in the VA's busiest claims office. Those include allegations the VA has not fixed flaws in a system to identify errors in the rating of veteran disability claims, the dismissal of an employee who also was a union official and a toxic relationship between managers and the union.

"Your failure to take steps to address significant problems affecting employees and the public we serve has earned you this vote of no confidence," Valorie Reilly, president of Local 1594, wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to Witty.

Witty's office did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Witty, a VA employee since 1991, has been director of the office since May 2010 and oversees an operation providing services to 1.8 million veterans and their families.

Reilly told Witty in the letter that the union has logged 81 grievances against the VA so far this year, more than ever before. And Reilly said regional office managers have failed to respond to grievances involving quality-control employees who work to eliminate errors in disability claims.

"Your failure to respond shows a callous disregard for the employees who work here and the mission they have been tasked to perform: serving veterans," the letter said.

In an interview, Reilly said relations between the union and Witty's office have deteriorated badly during the last year. Tensions were particularly high in July with the installation of a camera outside the union office, Reilly said. Though the VA denied spying on the union and said it was simply a security camera, it was removed after news of its installation went public.

Reilly said that having a functional, healthy workplace ultimately benefits veterans. The union says the office has about 800 employees, half of whom are in the union.

"We have a lot of dedicated employees," Reilly said. "All they want to do is help veterans. But management isn't always putting the needs of veterans first."

Among the union's complaints against management:

- Not following the recommendations by doctors of employees who request reasonable work accommodations for a handicap or medical condition. The union says workers over 40 are sometimes instead "encouraged" to take a disability retirement.

- Failing to disclose all performance standards for employees, allowing favoritism of "preferred employees."

- Excessive micro-management by the regional office's "top-heavy management structure." This, the union says, results in some relatively minor issues with employees escalating to senior managers not in the best position to assess the facts.

- Refusal to stop retaliation against employees for union activity and "rein in rogue managers."

Among those union officials who faced retaliation, Reilly said, was Javier Soto, a VA ratings specialist who was dismissed earlier this year after he submitted a report critical of the way the office handled disability claims.

Soto testified before the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee in July and portrayed managers more focused on numbers than quality. In a written statement to Congress, Soto said, "The pressure to focus on production and complete cases has resulted in less attention on quality to meet 'numbers' goals ... While quality-control numbers are touted nationally ... local internal employee quality reviews show high error rates."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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