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on November 14, 2014
Amanda Schroeder, an Army veteran who is classified as disabled, has had a difficult year. The ratings specialist in the VA’s Portland Regional Benefits Office was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, started chemotherapy in December and underwent a double mastectomy the day after Memorial Day this year. Post-surgery, she underwent a series of radiation treatments.
Her experience with the VA made a bad situation worse, said the wife and mother of two children.
First, she used up her paid leave, which was extended when coworkers donated additional hours of their own leave to her. But how much? She says still hasn’t been told, despite repeated requests for an accounting. Her best clue is the approximately $5,000 the agency deposited in her account in January. That amount represented some portion of the donated leave.
Then, she said, she received a last-minute demand for additional medical documentation on the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday. The agency said it couldn’t grant her leave from her job until it was received.
After her surgery, with her employment status still unsettled, the office of Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., intervened. Only then did the VA grant her unpaid leave, Amanda Schroeder said. She went without pay, except for two smaller payments related to donated leave, until she returned to work in September when her radiation treatments were finished.
Worst of all, Schroeder spent most of the year believing she had lost her private life insurance because of the agency’s negligence.
When the agency stopped paying her, the premiums that had been automatically deducted from her paycheck stopped. She thought her coverage lapsed and she was furious.
“I will never get life insurance again,” she said this summer. “I’m a 37-year-old woman with breast cancer.”
Schroeder, who’s now 38, got a pleasant surprise late last month. She learned that a benefactor in her union had picked up her premiums when the VA stopped paying them. Contrary to what she understood since before her surgery, her coverage didn’t lapse.
“I’m really emotional,” she said in an email Halloween morning after getting off the phone with her insurance carrier. “I am still covered (by) insurance, no thanks to the agency, but great, great thanks to my union.”
Here’s the other thing that makes Schroeder’s case exceptional: She is president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents about 3,300 VA employees. As union representative, she has represented employees in equal-opportunity actions against VA managers, participated in audits with schedulers and publicly criticized the agency’s personnel policies. Google her name and you’ll see that she has criticized the agency for burning out its employees. She also wrote a blog post just before her surgery in which she called the agency “cruel” and “non-caring.”
Her treatment by her own human relations department during her leave for cancer treatments, she says, was “totally retaliatory.”
Schroeder says others in her office also are veterans who have asked for accommodations for their disabilities, from different job duties to altered seating arrangements. But at least some requests, she said, were met with “a punitive reaction.” Over time, she said, disabled veteran coworkers have quit in frustration.
“They’re burning out at an unconscionable rate,” she said. At the same time, “one of the biggest things we need is more staff. We don’t have enough people.”
Chris Marshall, the director of the Portland VA Regional Office, which handles veterans’ benefits claims, noted that more than 60 percent of the office’s employees are military veterans and many have service-connected disabilities, the result of a conscious effort to hire more disabled veterans.
“When any of our employees experience a health problem or other personal hardship, we support them to the greatest extent possible through our existing programs.,” he said through a spokesman. “The Portland VA Regional Office is committed to the mission of serving veterans. This can only be achieved through a workforce that receives the same care and compassion that we provide to the veterans we serve.”
Marshall said the office can’t discuss employees’ personal matters, but “we will continue to work hard to resolve concerns.”