VA Secretary: Let’s Reform Official Time

346 VA employees work full time on union activities. The VA Secretary says reforming use of official time by unions is necessary. This reform will likely take a long time.

“Official time” is a term used to describe a practice under which the federal government pays federal employees their regular salary and benefits while representing a union.

VA Secretary and Use of Official Time at the Agency

The Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, wants to change the number of employees using official time and the amount of time used by VA employees solely for representing the union. At a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Shulkin noted “the amount of time that is being spent away from clinical duties and other duties” is something that needs to be negotiated with the unions with which the agency has collective bargaining agreements.

Official time can be used by agency employees for purposes such as representing the union in contract negotiations, filing grievances or appeals on behalf of employees in the bargaining unit, or meeting with agency officials.

Official time is not supposed to be used for conducting internal union business such as soliciting new members or engaging in partisan political activities. The reality is that in the VA, and in many other agencies, there is not a consistent system for monitoring or controlling the use of official time.

346 VA Employees Spent 100% of Their Time Representing a Union

According to the GAO, in fiscal year 2015 data collected through a VA time tracking system, VA employees spent approximately 1,057,000 hours on official time for union representational activities. According to VA officials, unions represented almost 290,000 bargaining unit employees across the agency during this time. In addition, the data show 346 employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time. In effect, the entire salary and the benefits paid by the agency for these 346 employees was spent for the employees to represent a union and not performing clinical or other duties for the VA.

The GAO also noted that the time keeping systems used by the VA are not reliable. Without reliable information from VA facilities on the use of official time, VA management does not have what it needs to monitor the use of official time and manage its resources effectively according to the GAO’s conclusions.

The VA uses two separate time and attendance systems that track official time in different ways according to the General Accountability Office (GAO). The inconsistent recording of official time and lack of accurate data raises doubts about the agency’s ability to accurately monitor official time usage or share reliable data with the Office of Personnel Management.

When Can the VA Start Reforming Use of Official Time?

The use of official time in an agency is subject to negotiations between an agency and a union. The VA is one agency that has not put the time and effort into accurately tracking how much the agency is spending in supporting union activities. Moreover, negotiating labor union contracts at the agency often takes one or more years and the contracts are usually effective for several years—in part to avoid going through the lengthy process all over again any sooner than necessary.

Shulkin noted in his breakfast speech that reforming this use of time at the VA will have to wait until the contracts are re-negotiated.

While the agency and the union could agree to open negotiations on this issue at any time, the unions are not going to be willing to give up a benefit that provides so much financial support for union activity paid entirely by the federal government. In fact, getting a union to agree to reduce the amount of time and money spent by the agency on their behalf is unlikely to be resolved with a voluntary agreement. In all likelihood, the issue will have to go before a third party (the Federal Service Impasses Panel) that resolves labor disputes in the federal government.

In this way, the federal government could impose contractual terms more favorable to the agency. As a practical matter, this reform effort will most likely not occur until a few years in the future.

AFGE is the largest federal employee union and represents a large number of employees at the VA. Its view has been that the use of official time is useful and constructive for an agency.

Official time allows for the very best way for federal employees to bring forward evidence of waste, fraud, and abuse. AFGE uses official time to protect whistleblowers on issues large and small. And by denying the medical professionals who care for our nation’s heroes protections on the job, Congress is placing their misguided ideals far above the rights and needs of working people in our country’s most important health care system – many of whom are veterans themselves.

AFGE’s National President, David Cox, has worked as a nurse in the VA system. Cox has defended at least some GAO report and says the report found that use of the elected union representatives improved decision making and helped to resolve problems within the VA—ultimately improving care for veterans.

Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) took issue with the AFGE position and commented to Cox in a hearing on this topic:

You said that all of this official time is to drive quality. There is no direct correlation in terms of the amount of official time with regards to grievances or quality; I can’t find any linear correlation there. So until you can show me that official time can be directly correlated to the quality of healthcare that our veterans deserve, we’ve got to reform it. How long will it take you to get me that kind of direct correlation?

It is unknown what information in support of the AFGE position, if any, was provided to the Congressman subsequent to the hearing.

How Much Time and Money Spent on Union Activity in Government?

No one really knows how much is time and money is spent by federal union representatives on union activity. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in fiscal year 2012, the number of hours spent on official time was 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits. The number of hours used increased by 545,527 between 2009 and 2012.

Some in Congress would like to rectify the lack of information on this topic and a bill has passed the House to require OPM to issue an annual report on the use of official time.

While the OPM figure is very specific, the real answer is no one really knows how much time or money is spent on these activities. In 2012, the GAO found that the official time report was not accurate. The 2012 GAO report implies the actual cost to the government was significantly higher than reported.

Pending Legislation Regarding Official Time

Several different bills have been introduced in Congress to curb the use of official time and the federal government’s support of unions. One of the bills has passed in the House but has not been taken up in the Senate. A bill that would impact a retired federal employee’s pension who spend most of his time as a union representative has been introduced in the House but it has not been considered by the full House. It is unlikely to be enacted into law.

Another bill that would impact official time has been introduced that would prevent any employee in the VA who makes over $100,000 per year to use official time. The Vet Protection Act of 2017 would prevent any employee from spending more than 25% of duty time working on behalf of a union and receiving a salary and benefits from the federal government. This bill has been sent by a House committee to the full house for consideration. It is also unlikely to become law although legislation impacting the Department of Veterans Affairs has been more successful—probably because there is more urgency to making changes in the VA due to the problems and intensive negative publicity the agency has received in the last several years.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47