Federal Employee Labor Union Files Grievance Against VA’s Smoking Ban

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Nov. 8, 2019

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ new smoking ban took effect on Oct. 1, prohibiting all patients and non-staff from smoking on VA hospital premises. In January the ban will extend to employees.

The smoke-free policy was created to initiate a healthier environment and improve care for veterans, but the American Federation of Government Employees argues that the ban violates the labor union’s contract.

A 2008 contract that is still in effect states that all VA facilities will provide employees with “reasonably accessible designated smoking areas.” However, the ban does not allow any smoking while on VA property, including parking areas.

Because of the conflicting policies, the AFGE filed a national grievance, which the VA’s Office of Labor Management Relations denied. The 670,000-member labor union has invoked arbitration and is waiting to schedule a hearing once the arbitrator is selected.

“Although we believe that the agency violated the law and our contract by implementing the directive for AFGE’s bargaining unit employees, we encourage employees to comply with the directive to avoid the threat of discipline while we continue to challenge the policy,” said Alma Lee, AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council president, in a statement.

In addition to the contractual dispute between the union and the VA, the ban has received pushback from veteran’s and their families who don’t think the policy is necessary.

Alma Lee, AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council president.

Al Lewis, author of “Cracking Health Costs,” said that the ban is only a good idea in theory and questions whether it is a wise decision for the overall productivity of the organization. “Instead of creating a culture of health, you are creating a culture of deceit,” Lewis said.

The idea of taking away all designated smoking areas from veterans using VA facilities is also seen as cruel and unfair. Based on the affiliation between tobacco products and the military, it is common for veterans to rely on smoking as a source of comfort.

Pat Englewood, an organizational psychologist and counselor said that the use of tobacco products can be part of good and bad memories of the military service that a veteran may choose to not let go of, or can’t let go of.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in 2018 found that about 30 percent of veterans use tobacco products, which is a much higher rate than most of the non-veteran population. The prior culture of tobacco use in the military is considered a significant influence on this issue.

Englewood said that part of the upset toward the smoking ban may be derived from the veteran’s addiction to these products.

“The craving has become a necessary habit in their daily routine,” said Englewood, who is also a Vietnam era and Gulf War veteran. “If there is any threat that this craving will not be satisfied, then the big guns come out and they blame others through their defensive comments and behaviors.”

Although taking away the designated smoking areas will make it difficult to take smoke breaks, Englewood saw the new policy as a responsible step toward better protecting the health of the VA’s patients and staff.

“It is not an overstepping of power to look out for the health and well-being of all service members and hospital staff,” she said. “No one is taking anyone’s control of their lives away.”

Gary Kunich, a spokesman for the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, also supports the ban as he considers it to be a positive and healthy change toward maintaining a healthy work environment.

“We’ve actually gotten a lot of positive comments from people who are happy that we’re doing this, that there’s not a cloud of smoke outside or that there aren’t cigarette butts on the ground,” Kunich said.

Since the Milwaukee VA Medical Center has undergone this change, Kunich says that the ban has “changed things for the better.” According to Kunich, a majority of the employees and veterans at the Milwaukee facility don’t smoke and have wanted a healthier environment to provide and receive better care.

In the 10 years that Kunich has worked at this facility, he recalls town hall meetings where some of the veterans would ask why they still allowed smoking on the property. “It just seemed to be a logical step forward and the right thing to do for all of our employees and all of our veterans,” he said.

For veterans who are struggling to quit smoking or using other tobacco and nicotine products, Kunich encourages them to take this as an opportunity to find healthier habits by taking advantage of the programs that the VA offers.

Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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