VA employees, nationally and in Utah, are asking Congress for a wage bump
A small group of Utah Department of Veteran and Military Affairs employees rallied outside of the Salt Lake City medical center Monday, even as snow fell around them. They were chanting phrases like “We deserve a pay raise” and “We want 8.7” and holding signs that read “Government workers deserve fair pay.”
The local Utah chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees labor union is one of many chapters nationwide asking for an 8.7% wage increase, among other things, for VA employees.
Rob Johnson, a veteran and president of the local chapter, called the pay bump “a drop in the bucket.” He believes the request is reasonable, especially when comparing the average VA salary to Utah's rising cost of living.
“When it comes to a single mom or single dad that is trying to make ends meet and homes in Utah are $500,000 and above to get one,” Johnson said, “these poor folks are sitting in an apartment someplace all the time with no hope of getting out.”
He said registered nurses are making anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 less than other nurses employed elsewhere. And the union isn’t just fighting for a pay raise for hospital staff. Johnson said the increase would be for all VA employees – including janitors and department directors.
Tina Dameron, an administrator at the VA, does a bit of everything in the role, from informing veterans of their benefits to getting them checked in at the hospital. And Dameron isn’t just helping veterans from Utah. The Salt Lake City VA office serves those living in Southwest Idaho, Eastern Nevada and parts of Wyoming.
Dameron said an extra 8.7% means “a few more eggs and milk in the basket” while grocery shopping or going out to eat on occasion.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time I went out to dinner,” she said. “So as far as my lifestyle, yeah, I mean, it would change things. I would actually be living more comfortably for sure.”
The union is also fighting for social workers to be included in employee contracts. Johnson said they “get fired just as fast as they come on board.” And because of that, along with the low pay, he said the Utah VA is having a tough time retaining social workers.
And even though there are staffing shortages, Johnson said the union will never go on strike.
“We can have rallies, we can picket, but we will never have a sit-out and we will never have a strike. We're too devoted to the veterans,” he said.
While other labor unions can negotiate directly with their employer, that’s not the case for the American Federation of Government Employees. Congress would need to approve the pay raise.
Johnson said he’s reached out to almost every member of Utah’s congressional delegation (with the exception of Rep. Blake Moore) on the issue. He said Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart have been responsive.
“But the rest of them, we're having a lot of problems just trying to get them to say hello to us because we're union,” Johnson said.
Congress hasn’t voted on the issue yet. But Dameron wants lawmakers on the Hill to know “we’re asking for less than 10%. It’s important. We all need that.”