VA to ban medical professionals from union activities at work

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2018

WASHINGTON — More than 400 medical professionals with the Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer be allowed to perform union activities during work hours starting Thursday.

The order, issued by the VA last week, ends “official time” status for 430 employees and bars another 100,000 employees from getting involved in union activities during working hours. It applies to all physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors, optometrists, registered nurses and physician assistants.

VA employees use “official time” to file staff grievances, mediate conflicts and discuss issues such as safety and productivity.

Union leaders responded hotly to the decision. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called it another in a series of attacks on unions by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Union leaders and members working at VA facilities across this country ensure that our veterans are treated properly and are provided the care they are owed,” Cox said in a statement. “They have blown the whistle on wait-list scandals, fought back against the gender pay disparity, and brought to light the rampant understaffing throughout the VA.”

Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, said it was part of an attempt to “silence the collective voice of nurses.”

“This is a huge overstep by [VA Secretary Robert] Wilkie, and we intend to fight back,” she said in a statement.

The VA described the use of official time as a waste of taxpayer funds and lauded the action as putting 430 medical providers back to work treating veterans.

The agency cited a report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that shows VA employees spent 1 million hours on official time in fiscal year 2016 – about 3.5 hours per employee.

After the Defense Department, the VA has the second-most employees of any federal agency. Nearly 300,000 employees are union members.

The amount of official time used by VA employees cost the agency about $49 million in fiscal year 2016, the report shows.

“Allowing health care workers to do taxpayer-funded union work instead of serving veterans impacts patient care negatively,” said Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, the VA acting assistant secretary for human resources and administration. “President Trump has made it clear – VA employees should always put veterans first. And when we hire medical professionals to take care of veterans, that’s what they should do at all times. No excuses, no exceptions.”

Trump has previously taken steps to limit federal workers’ union involvement. In May, he issued three executive orders to cut back on union activity, shorten the amount of time that it takes to fire federal workers and encourage agencies to fire employees, instead of merely disciplining them.

A federal court decision blocked some elements of Trump's executive orders, contending they exceeded the bounds of his presidential authority. His administration is appealing the decision.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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