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Doctors' dispute still unresolved

Robert Redding's troubles became clear the day a technician came into his office to check his laptop computer. The technician's explanation was innocent: It was time to update Redding's anti-virus software. But the real reason was anything but ro...

Robert Redding's troubles became clear the day a technician came into his office to check his laptop computer.

The technician's explanation was innocent: It was time to update Redding's anti-virus software.

But the real reason was anything but routine, and surfaced 20 minutes later when the technician returned, accompanied by the chief of security.

Redding was accused of "hacking" into the computer system at the Fargo Veterans Affairs Medical and Regional Office Center - allegations later found to be unsupported by a federal labor investigator.

Redding, a counseling psychologist who last year was fired and then rehired, is one of three union leaders who were terminated in the midst of a pay dispute involving foreign doctors at the Fargo VA.


The dispute, which began four years ago, remains unresolved. The VA has appealed U.S. Department of Labor decisions that it owes 10 foreign doctors $212,499 in back pay and must rehire two physicians it fired.

The two physicians - Dr. Harjinder Virdee and Dr. Rudranath Talukdar - also were awarded back pay, estimated at $560,000 by their union, the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Any salary awards and back pay would be in addition to $16,000 in back wages and $52,000 in attorneys' fees paid under a settlement for Redding.

He was fired in the midst of testifying on behalf of the two "whistle-blowing" doctors, and rehired three months later.

The turmoil began when foreign doctors began complaining about what they regarded as inadequate pay. Nineteen doctors joined the National Federation of Federal Employees in 1999 - the first time physicians took an active role in the local union.

Physicians were disgruntled about their pay and working conditions, and what they saw as an adversarial administration.

"I call it an atmosphere of intimidation," said Talukdar, who became active in the union while involved in the wage case.

At the heart of the pay dispute involving the foreign doctors is whether the VA paid the proper prevailing wage, as required under the doctors' specialty occupation visas.


The 10 doctors were paid annual salaries of between $101,788 and $139,927. The U.S. Department of Labor determined that the prevailing wage at the time, 2001, was between $124,280 and $165,000.

"I don't believe it actually was color discrimination," said Talukdar, a native of India who now works at a medical center in Houston. "The problem is, a person on a visa can't negotiate."

The foreign doctors are in a position that makes them vulnerable to exploitation, Talukdar and Virdee said. As temporary employees, they could be terminated at any time. Under the provisions of their visas, they're subject to deportation 30 days after losing their jobs.

Although Virdee or Talukdar aren't U.S. citizens, both are resident aliens, and therefore felt more secure to advocate vigorously for higher pay on their colleagues' behalf.

Douglas Kenyon, director of the Fargo VA, rejects suggestions the center exploits the foreign physicians, who continue to be an important part of the staff.

"They have more options than just the Fargo VA," he said. "They choose the Fargo VA because it's a good place to work. We don't exploit anyone."

'Trumped-up charges'

Although not explicitly an issue in the case over payment of the minority doctors, racial discrimination is alleged in a federal lawsuit filed in February by a Hispanic nurse practitioner, Jo McIntosh.


McIntosh contends that she was discriminated against, on the basis of race and gender, when she was passed over for a position she was deemed qualified to fill.

The position was offered to two white males, and one of them was hired. McIntosh claims that she was not hired in retaliation for earlier discrimination claims she had filed against her supervisor, an allegation the VA denies.

She also contends that she was discriminated against when she was banished from working in one of the medical center's clinics, where her supervising physician's office was located, making it difficult for her to do her job.

McIntosh contends the Fargo VA got accustomed to treating the foreign doctors callously, and the attitude spread to its dealings with other minority staff.

"They have such a history of being able to treat people of color badly that they thought they could treat me badly and I surprised them," she said. "I won't accept being treated badly, and I won't go away."

Virdee also claims she was a victim of discrimination and retaliation in a federal lawsuit filed in February. In the lawsuit, she claims that VA officials, including Kenyon, the Fargo center director, interfered with equal-opportunity complaints she filed.

She contends that Kenyon met with other VA officials before they were interviewed by an investigator so their statements would be uniform. The VA denies the claim.

Virdee also contends the VA used "trumped-up" allegations to justify her dismissal, including complaints that she had a poor "bedside manner" and that veterans considered her to be biased against them in evaluating disability claims for service-related post-traumatic stress disorder.


But in documents introduced in her administrative appeals, Virdee cited favorable patient survey comments about her services. She also presented a comparison showing her rate of recommending disability claims for the stress disorder was in line with other evaluators.

VA's defense

In answering the lawsuits by Virdee and McIntosh, the VA denies the allegations of discrimination and retaliation. It maintains that its actions were taken for "legitimate business reasons" and "legitimate managerial need."

A spokeswoman for the VA's Midwest region said the Fargo VA Medical Center does not operate in a discriminatory manner.

"The Fargo VAMC fully complies with all of the practices and provisions of the EEO laws," said Sharyl Schaepe, a VA public affairs officer in Lincoln, Neb. EEO refers to federal equal-employment opportunity laws.

"Any allegation of noncompliance is taken very seriously and investigated," she said. "We feel that they're in full compliance. We do encourage employees to report incidents if they feel their rights have been violated."

Talukdar, who keeps in touch with his former colleagues at the Fargo VA and recently visited the center, believes pay for foreign doctors has improved since the decision in the wage case, which so far has withstood the agency's appeals.

But Talukdar and Virdee, both of whom would like to return to the VA, said top management has refused to accept that it has made errors in its dealings with medical staff.


"They're running a feudal system here," Talukdar said. "They can hire and fire anyone they want. If it means trumping up some charges, they'll do that. They've been doing it a long time, but it's catching up to them."

The two doctors say many of their former colleagues have left, including the 10 who were involved in the pay dispute. High turnover among physicians translates into longer waits for VA patients and disruptions in continuity of care, they said.

And physician membership in NFFE at the Fargo VA, which numbered 19 five years ago, has dwindled to one, Redding said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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