Are VA Employees Working Full-Time for Unions Hurting Patient Care?

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, both senior members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, this week questioning the number of federal employees in the agency who are spending all of their time working on behalf of a union while receiving their full salary and benefits of a federal employee.

The practice of federal employees receiving a federal salary and benefits while working for a union is known as “official time” and is not unique to the Department of Veterans Affairs. As noted in a previous article on the FedSmith site, legislation has been introduced to require more accurate reporting of official time by union representatives in the federal government. The practice of official time is outlined in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which put the federal labor relations program under a statute instead of an executive order. The idea of having the federal government pay for union representatives’ time was, at least in part, a way to avoid having a “closed shop” in agencies under which federal employees would be required to pay dues to the union elected to represent them.

The letter from the two Senators notes that 188 federal employees have been identified as working 100% of their time on behalf of a union. The letter was sent one day after the White House said President Barack Obama is “deadly serious” about wiping out a huge backlog in veterans disability benefits claims.

The letter also notes that the agency employed at least 85 nurses, some making more than $100,000 per year, who were spending 100% of their time working on behalf of the union while, at the same time, the agency was listing openings for hundreds of nursing positions to be filled. To put this into perspective, our individual federal employee salary database notes that there are approximately 9500 VA nurses making at least $100,000 per year and a number making more than $150,000 per year in the Veterans Health Administration. The highest paid nurse in the organization was listed as making more than $196,000 in 2012 and about 175 nurses working for the Veterans Health Administration make at least $150,000 per year. More than 9000 nurses in the VA made more than $100,000 per year in 2012. The individuals who are full-time union representatives were not identified in the letter.

Here is how to locate the information on FedsDataCenter.com. Enter the search criteria into the search form on the federal salary search on FedsDataCenter.com as shown below:

VAsearch

 

Here is what your search will look like if you sort the salary levels from highest to lowest. You can also search under the occupation “practical nurse” if you prefer to do a search in that way. 

VANurses2012

 

According to the Senators, it isn’t only nurses spending 100% of their time on union activities. The letter lists four addiction specialists, nine pharmacists and pharmacists technicians, and various other medical professionals and technicians.

There is apparently doubt as to the actual number of people in the VA who are spending all of their time working on behalf of a union. The Senators are asking the agency how many VA employees are actually spending all of their time in this capacity and whether the agency has to hire other people to do the work that the federal employees were hired to do before they started working solely for the union.

The letter also requests additional information, such as how a person is selected to become a full-time union representative, whether these people report to their work site on a daily basis and how their performance is evaluated. And, getting to the heart of the matter at hand, the final question posed to the VA is:

“Have any personnel assigned to processing disability claims been on 100% official time over the past 10 years? If so, how many? How might official time affect VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog?”

“Official time” has been used in the federal government for a number of years. Many, perhaps most, federal agencies employ at least some people who receive their normal federal salary and benefits while working on behalf of a union.

If the concept has been around for a number of years, and has been codified in a federal statute since the Carter Administration, why is it under scrutiny now?

There are several reasons that stand out.

First, the federal budget deficits play a role. Some in Congress want to cut federal spending and paying federal employees to work on behalf of a union stands out as being an expenditure open to question for an agency to spend its money in this way. Moreover, there are questions as to how much official time is actually being used and its cost to the government. OPM noted in a recent report that agencies reported 3,395,187 hours used in 2012 at a cost of $156 million. But, as author Bob Gilson noted, the actual figure is much higher than that for reasons he noted in Interesting Twists in OPM’s Official Time Report.

Second, federal unions openly support Democrats in most elections. They spend time and money and donate services to these candidates. Republicans often see federal unions as an extension of the Democratic party operating at government expense from within the federal bureaucracy on behalf of a workforce that is supposed to be politically neutral. This is probably sufficient reason by itself for some Republicans to want to restrict their power and influence.

Third, there is a suspicion among some Republicans that union officials are doing more than just spending time and money on behalf of Democrats to help them get elected. They are possibly concerned that the actions by the unions goes beyond giving money. Here is a quote from a UPI article regarding the controversy surrounding targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS):

“Most recently, we learned Obama met with anti-Tea Party IRS Union President Colleen Kelley just before the tax agency began targeting conservative groups. Is that the smoking gun? Was the president in on the plan to harass opponents of big government? Through labor-management forums, the union has a lot to say about how the IRS is run but I doubt a transcript of the meeting, if we could get one, would prove the two presidents directly conspired to use IRS powers to target conservative groups. Instead, it would likely show they were in concert on the need to defeat the GOP in 2012, and countering the Tea Party’s influence was important.

Obviously, there is only speculation, not proof, that a union official was working with President Obama to target Republican supporters. But, in politics, a suspicion that threatens the future of elected officials may be sufficient to generate a political response.

Whatever the underlying reasons, as we have seen in the past several weeks, there is now an on-going effort to restrict the power of federal employee unions and to gain more information about the government’s financial support of the unions.

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

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About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.

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