Congressman John Rutherford (R-FL), who is a a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, recently sent a letter to VA Secretary David J. Shulkin raising concerns he had about possible violation of federal law by some VA employees.
On February 13 and 14, 2018, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) protested staff levels at VA facilities through an event dubbed the “March on VA” outside of the VA’s central office and at rallies outside AFL-CIO Headquarters and the U.S. Capitol.
The rally was organized by AFGE. “We want to march on the VA,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox. “We want the secretary to hear our voices loud and clear.”
Recent firings of VA employees and targeting of federal employees’ pay and benefits in budget proposals were among the topics of the protest.
Rutherford wrote in his letter:
Following this protest, my staff forwarded videos of the event on the 13th to your staff and inquired if they violated the standard for use of official time. They received a response that stated, “Employees may only participate in a rally or informational picketing while on leave. They cannot be in a paid duty status when they are protesting or rallying.” In my estimation, these protests in question meet this standard and all attendees should have taken annual leave for the period in which they participated in these protests.
Rutherford went on to ask the VA to identify all employees who participated in the rallies and ensure that proper leave protocols were followed, particularly for any employees who are on 100% official time.
There are restrictions on how official time can be used. Presumably, participating in a rally of this nature would not be an appropriate use of official time. This restriction would apply to a union representative who is on 100% “official time.” An employee who is on 100% official time refers to an employee of the agency who is still receiving the pay and benefits of a government employee but who is working solely as a union representative rather than performing the job for which the employee was initially hired.
Rutherford said in a statement about his letter that his concern stems, in part, from a recent GAO report which said that the VA is not properly accounting for use of official time.
“I recognize and support the attendees’ freedom to exercise constitutional rights to participate in these rallies and protests,” said Rutherford. “I am, however, concerned that some VA employees may have violated federal law. A recent Government Accountability Office report shows how VA is not properly accounting for how much taxpayer money is being used on employees performing union activities. This is time and funding that should be spent on patient care or other services that directly benefit veterans. I am asking Secretary Shulkin to look into this situation to see whether these employees are fully complying with VA policy and adequately serving America’s veterans.”