According to a new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, approximately 346 employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs do no actual work for taxpayers. While on so-called “official time,” they draw a federal salary while conducting work on behalf of their labor union. However, the GAO report did not reveal what exactly is the work they accomplished. The VA does not accurately record the amount of time employees spend on union business. "Employees spent approximately 1,057,00 hours on official time for union representation activities … In addition, the data show that 346 employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time," the GAO found in the January report. The GAO report said the said the VA's poor monitoring meant the data was "inconsistent and not reliable."
 
Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, introduced legislation in March to prohibit VA employees from spending more than 50 percent of their work time on union activities. Furthermore, employees who work directly with patients would be further limited to 25 percent. Arrington took issue with a finding that the 346 employees spent 100 percent of their work time as union representatives in fiscal 2015.
 
“It is outrageous and unconscionable that VA employees, especially employees who provide much needed health care services, are spending the majority of their time conducting union business instead of fulfilling the duties they were hired to do,” according to a statement Arrington released in March.
 
A member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Arrington gained the support of committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. His release contends that his bill would also “put an end to forcing VA employees to pay union dues” and give them the option to opt out of their unions at any time. 
 
Tim Kauffman, a communications specialist with the largest VA union – the American Federation of Government Employees – said federal employees are not required to join. However, members are allowed to opt out now only during their renewal period. Labor unions at the VA are combatting another bill that they perceive as an attack on due process rights of VA employees. That bill would do away with employees’ option for a grievance process. Congressman Roe, who sought to eliminate the grievance process, claims that the process can action against employees and can take nearly a year to complete.
 
The Government Accountability Office initiated the review into the amount of time VA employees were spending on union business because of “increased scrutiny in recent years,” the report states. In March, lawmakers on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs referred to a report by the Office of Personnel Management, which found VA employees spent nearly 1.1 million hours on union activities in 2012, which was more than any other federal agency. The report, which was issued in 2014, is the latest from the Office of Personnel Management.
 
The VA is the second-largest federal bureaucracy after the Defense Department. More than 250,000 of its nearly 370,000 employees are union members. The VA's workforce is represented by no less than five unions: The American Federation of Government Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, National Nurses United, the National Federation of Federal Employees and the Service Employees International Union. Union representatives have to travel extensively in order to attend to union business.
 
According to the Office of Personnel Management report, the average number of hours spent on union activities in 2012 per VA employee was 4.28. The average for all federal agencies was 2.81 hours per employee. Time spent on union business, a.k.a. “official time,” include term negotiations, dispute resolution, and meetings between employees and management. In 2012, VA employees spent about 185,000 hours resolving disputes. “The mission of the VA isn’t to take care of unions, it’s to take care of veterans,” Roe said in a statement in March about Arrington’s bill. “This legislation will ensure that the well-being of our heroes is prioritized above all else.”
 
Arrington believes that the number on 100 percent official time may be much higher. He also noted that the 346 workers do not include those who spend most, if not all, of their time doing union work. Arrington said “official time” reflects what he said is the "broken culture at the heart of the VA."
 
Arrington’s bill would effectively put VA employees under right-to-work protection. The VA would be prohibited from agreeing to union contracts that force workers to join or otherwise support a union as a condition of employment. 

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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