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Lawmakers question amount of time VA employees spend on union activities

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 16, 2017

WASHINGTON — Some House Republicans blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday for allowing employees to spend what they considered too much time engaging in union activities.

Two House subcommittees met Thursday following a report from the Government Accountability Office that found the VA was not tracking the amount of work time employees spent on union activities.

The GAO, a leading government watchdog, initiated the report because of scrutiny over how the VA manages employee time. In 2012, the Office of Personnel Management found approximately 250,000 VA employees spent about 1.1 million hours on union activities, referred to as “official time.”

“Official time certainly is of benefit, but when it’s used in excess, it becomes abusive,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee on government operations. “Today is a somber moment. We have a responsibility to serve our veterans. Any abuse of the system will be looked at in a finite way, and we will correct it.”

The GAO found the VA’s efforts to track union activities were inconsistent and “not reliable.” Committee members particularly took issue with one GAO finding that 346 VA employees were authorized to spend 100 percent of their work time on union activities.

Some of the VA employees spending time on union activities are health care providers, according to the report.

“I don’t believe the average American would see this as reasonable or as necessary,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee on economic opportunity. “I believe the average American would be outraged.”

Kimberly Perkins McLeod, acting director of VA labor management, said the department was working to roll out a new method to record time spent on union activities, but it would not be in place until July 2018.

The hearing left some House Democrats defending federal unions.

“Without the work of these unions, we would not be able to train appropriately. We would not be able to protect and facilitate whistleblowing,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas. “It’s U.S. law going back to the [President John F.] Kennedy administration, and every single Congress and administration since then has found value in this. I say this because some folks today have talked about official time as though it’s some shameful act we must hide or cover up or apologize for.”

O’Rourke said he would send a request to new VA Secretary David Shulkin, asking him to commit – on paper – that a permanent solution to tracking union time be established by July 2018.

Of the VA’s approximately 370,000 employees, the American Federation of Government Employees represents about 220,000 of them.

“It would be great if this hearing were only about the findings of the GAO report and the VA’s recordkeeping with regard to official time,” said federation President David Cox. “But the very right of federal employees to join and be represented by their unions seems to be in question.”

Michelle Washington, a psychologist and VA whistleblower, submitted written testimony asking VA employees be allowed to continue to spend official time on union activities. Washington faced retaliation after testifying before a Senate committee in 2011 about staffing shortages that left veterans waiting for treatment.

Washington went to her union representative to help defend against retaliation.

“[I]t is my strongly held belief based on my experiences with retaliation that official time is absolutely necessary to help protect veterans, workers and whistleblowers, as well as to ensure qualified, hardworking employees are not subjected to injustices like the ones I faced,” Washington wrote.

Cox said time spent on union activities helped to improve VA workplaces, which in turn led to improved services to veterans. Meadows requested proof of that and ordered Cox and the VA to provide evidence within 60 days that could tie union time to quality of service.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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