Veterans Affairs officials say they want to end their six-year-old policy of mandatory overtime to lessen employee burnout. But it won’t happen right away, because the number of VA claims keeps growing.

Since 2017, thousands of Veterans Benefits Administration employees have been required to work two to four hours extra each week to help keep pace with the workload of incoming claims. Department leaders said this week that they will suspend the mandate in July and August, to reduce stress and provide flexibility for summer vacation plans.

For department leaders, the overtime issue shows the difficult balance leaders need to navigate between the potential risk of making veterans wait longer for cases to be settled and the potential risk of working staff so hard to keep up with demand that they start to leave in droves.

Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs pledged to get rid of the required overtime altogether, during a May 16 House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.

“I don’t think it’s a sustainable practice,” he said. “But we also can’t yet move away from it completely because of the total workload … Ultimately, we need to move away from it, but we also have to be able to make sure that veterans aren’t waiting lengthy periods of time for their claims.”

VA claims processors completed about 1.7 million cases in fiscal 2022, the most ever. Halfway through fiscal 2023, they’re on pace to surpass that mark.

But the department has also seen a steady increase in the claims backlog in the last year because of the rising number of cases coming in. As of May 15, the number of claims waiting more than four months for a decision was just under 211,000, up about 60,000 cases from last fall.

Much of that stems from the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — passed last summer. More than 500,000 veterans have applied for new benefits under the law, which expands compensation for military toxic exposure injuries.

Jacobs said the long-term solution to that workload problem is hiring more staff. The department currently employs about 29,000 Veterans Benefits Administration employees, up 15% over the last 18 months.

But getting all of those new workers fully trained takes up to two years, meaning the existing workforce will have to continue shouldering the burden of high caseloads for now.

While the current mandatory overtime rules have been in place since 2017, VA has used the tool periodically for the last two decades, especially at times of new benefits expansion. Jacobs did not specify a target date for when the policy might be ended.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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