Minnesota DVA Commissioner addresses ‘toxic workplace’, lawmakers’ questions

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In front of lawmakers, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs shared how he plans to address what some consider toxic work environments within his department.

The legislative hearing fell within a week of two people getting let go from leadership positions on the department’s healthcare side of operations – the focus of concern is with MDVA’s Hastings’ Veterans Home.

RELATED: Minnesota DVA removes 2 leaders in response to ‘ongoing issues’ at Hastings Veterans Home

Legislators part of the State and Local Government and Veterans Committee also heard from former employees about their experience working at the state’s Veteran Homes. Some described workplace burnout, harassment, and pressures from the pandemic.

“For myself, I collapsed in an exam room on July 20, 2021,” Lynn Wachtler said about her time as a nurse practitioner with the MDVA, “I left in an ambulance with a cardiac event and my recovery included hospitalization, physical therapists, and mental health therapists.”

“In my career I have never encountered such a toxic, hostile environment,” Hilary Grover, former social worker at a MDVA Veterans Home, said, adding; “Leadership did written and verbal attacks on me and had publicly shamed me several times in front of others.”

“What got us to this point?” Senator Nicole Mitchell, DFL representative for district 47 and Vice Chair of the committee, asked the commissioner – alluding to some of the concerns she’s heard likely evolved over a long-period of time.

MDVA Commissioner Herke responded that when he heard of specific concerns from Hastings in June, he tried working alongside his deputy commissioner and facility administrator to create a “collaborative and positive environment.”

But, Commissioner Herke said after not seeing any big changes to the culture, he let the two go. An email over the weekend, which MDVA distributed to its employees, confirmed Deputy Commissioner Douglas Hughes and Hastings Veterans Home Administrator Mike Anderson are no longer employed by the department.

Herke’s statement pointed to “ongoing issues” at the Hastings Veterans Home and said the department aims for “continuing to make positive changes in the service of our Veterans.”

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Commissioner Herke said their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion director is preparing anti-bullying, anti-retaliation, harassment prevention, and respectful workplace training.

Committee member, and senate district 28 representative, Mark Koran feels more needs to be done than refreshing previous training.

“I think you’re going to have to do something a little bit different,” Senator Koran told Commissioner Herke. “You’re at the top of the food chain, and this all happened under your watch, so I think something different has to be done because all you’ve talked about is re-doing the training you’ve done in the past.”

While the MDVA looks to fill its vacant positions, MDVA Programs and Services Commissioner Brad Lindsay will step into the deputy commissioner role, while licensed nursing home administrator Craig Smith will lead the Hastings facility. Commissioner Herke said filling the roles permanently will be a big step in making improvements – he hopes to do so within about four months.