Veterans Affairs leaders will rescind nearly $9.7 million in incentive pay awards handed out earlier this month to 170 senior executives after a review found the extra money was awarded improperly, department officials announced Friday.

The mistakes represent just a small portion of the $117 million in Critical Skill Incentive Payments given to more than 13,000 employees in the past year. But department leaders acknowledged the move will force hardship for staffers being forced to repay thousands of dollars given in their paychecks earlier this month.

In a statement, senior leaders pledged to “work with these employees to help them through this process, recognizing that this was our error, not theirs.” They also promised a full review of the Critical Skill Incentive program “to make sure that we are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and resources provided by Congress.”

The program, approved by Congress last year, is designed to help retain employees in high-demand occupations such as HR specialists, housekeeping aides, personnel security and police officers. Individuals can receive bonuses up to 25% of their annual salary through the effort.

Department leaders have praised the program as a critical tool in helping to maintain experienced personnel and crucial skill sets in the VA workforce.

But they also conceded that implementation of the program in recent months has been “imprecise,” leading to senior executives who work at VA headquarters to receive some bonuses.

“The incentives were not requested by the individuals who received them, and there is no legal wrongdoing,” the department’s statement on the problem said. “Instead, VA leadership was overly broad in the way we implemented and executed this authority.”

None of the individuals who received improper payments were political appointees within the department. VA leaders said they will work on payment plans with the affected staffers to ensure the money is paid back at a reasonable schedule that does not cause any financial harm to them.

Affected employees were informed of the problems on Friday. VA leadership has also asked the inspector general to look into the errors and recommend potential changes to the program in the future.

The Critical Skill Incentive was created by Congress as part of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, known as the PACT Act. The sweeping legislation included several new hiring and retention authorities to help build up VA staffing levels in anticipation of more medical and benefits demands on the department from veterans seeking help for military toxic exposure injuries.

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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