Legislation introduced in the Senate would prohibit the use of official time at the Department of Veterans Affairs unless veterans are able to get an appointment within a 30-day period.
The Serve Veterans First Act (S. 1477) was introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ). It would ensure that no VA employee is paid for union or labor-organizing activities unless all veterans seeking hospital care or medical services from the VA are able to receive an appointment within the 30-day wait-time goal of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014.
“The VA should not pay employees for union work while veterans are forced to wait for medical care,” said Flake. “The VA exists to serve veterans and their families, period. If that wasn’t apparent to some VA employees, the Serve Veterans First Act will make it crystal clear.”
Flake cited data from the Government Accountability Office as fodder for the bill, noting that in 2015 GAO found VA employees used almost 1.1 million federal work hours for official union activities. That investigation also uncovered 346 VA employees who spent 100 percent of their working hours on union activities.
Flake noted, however, that the figures could actually be higher due to the fact that the VA does not consistently track official union time. The reality is that nobody really knows how much time and money is spent by the federal government on official time for union representatives, at the VA or anywhere else. Part of the problem, at least at the VA, is that there is not a reliable time keeping system for tracking official time.
The Secretary of the VA, David Shulkin, has said that he wants to reform the use of official time for some of the aforementioned reasons. However, any efforts to do so would have to wait until labor union contracts at the agency are re-negotiated in the future.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union and represents many employees at the VA. At a recent hearing on official time use at the VA, AFGE defended the use of official time, saying that it improves decision making and helps to resolve problems within the agency.
The VA has been a prime target for legislation attempting to reform the agency. In addition to looking at the use of official time, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 was recently signed into law which makes a number of reforms including an expedited process for firing VA employees for misconduct or poor performance.