U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staffers have posted record highs for processing benefits claims in recent weeks, but they’ll still face thousands of hours of mandatory overtime over the next year to keep pace with the workload coming in.
“I don’t like to ask our employees to work mandatory overtime, but I like less to have veterans wait for their benefits,” said Willie Clark, deputy under secretary for field operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration. “So we are keeping mandatory overtime for now … Our hope is downstream we can rely on it less.”
VA officials said they are pushing to hire more staff and find ways to ensure current employees aren’t burnt out by the flood of cases coming in. Staffers processed a record number of disability claims in fiscal 2023 and appear to be on pace to break that high mark again this fiscal year.
Clark said that before Oct. 1, department workers three times processed more than 9,000 claims in a single day. Since Oct. 1, benefits specialists have handled more than 9,000 claims 18 times.
Much of that increased workload are new military toxic exposure claims filed through the the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — signed into law in August 2022. More than 750,000 new claims on that topic have been filed in the last 13 months.
As a result, the number of backlogged claims — cases taking more than 120 days to complete — has risen steadily in recent months, to more than 319,000 this week, VA officials said. Clark said that figure is expected to rise “between 450,000 and 700,000 next year.”
The previous high in backlogged claims was set in 2013, when the overdue caseload reached 611,00 after a flood of claims from Vietnam veterans for illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure. It also prompted intense scrutiny from Congress and forced an overhaul of benefits processes, including digitizing the department’s records system.
Clark said he expects the backlog to be under control again sometime in 2025. But that will likely require keeping up the agency’s current processing pace.
Since early 2022, nearly all claims staff have been required to work 20 hours of overtime every month to help with the workload. Exceptions are made for employees with disabilities or other obstacles, and Clark said “respite periods” in the summer and winter have been put in place in an effort to avoid burnout.
Leaders are also hoping that new processing efficiencies will help deal with the workload. And VA Secretary Denis McDonough said officials are planning to continue their push to grow the workforce this fiscal year, although he acknowledged that budget fights on Capitol Hill could disrupt those plans.
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.