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Telework, ‘Official Time’ Disputes Stall VA Labor Talks (1)

Aug. 1, 2019, 12:58 PM; Updated: Aug. 1, 2019, 8:22 PM

Negotiators with the largest employee union at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they fear the VA could impose a labor contract on about 250,000 VA employees that would dramatically change work rules later this year.

If the two sides can’t reach a collective bargaining agreement by a Dec. 17 deadline, the VA could force a contract on the American Federation of Government Employees, as the administration has done at other agencies, said David Cann, AFGE’s director of bargaining.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department imposed contracts on AFGE after each side accused the other of bad-faith bargaining.

The VA in May proposed a contract that among other things would change telework rules and reduce union “official time”—time that department employees who are also union officials spend representing VA employees.

“We’ve done about a dozen information requests” relating to the proposed VA contract, Cann said. “They haven’t answered any of them” other than with general statements such as that the changes are needed to reduce “burdens” on the department, which jeopardizes the timeline for coming to an agreement, he said.

Bargaining began May 27 on a two-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule, with no meetings scheduled for November, Cann said. “We’re about a third of the way through the time, but not the articles” in the proposed contract, he said.

Both sides agreed to negotiating terms, including a Dec. 17 deadline. The union is resisting changes sought by the VA, department spokesman Curt Cashour said.

“AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better” for military veterans and their families, Cashour said. “Now AFGE is taking the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement.”

In addition to reducing union official time at the VA from more than 1 million hours to 10,000 hours per year, the department is looking to reach a contract that would empower front-line supervisors and streamline the hiring and job classification processes, Cashour said.

The VA also wants to make sure the contract doesn’t interfere with the department’s ability to take action under new laws intended to improve its operations, Cashour said. These include the VA Accountability Act, legislation signed by President Donald Trump in June 2017 that made it easier to discipline employees.

The VA is the second-largest federal agency, with about 374,000 employees. There are a total of about 2.1 million civilian federal employees, including about 1.2 million unionized employees.

More Heat Ahead?

Bargaining between federal employee unions and the Trump administration could heat up even more in the coming months, after a federal appeals court ruled that a lower court didn’t have jurisdiction to set aside large portions of three executive orders meant to alter federal labor relations, said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which describes its mission as supporting free enterprise and limited government.

The orders issued by Trump in May 2018 made it easier to fire federal employees, required agencies to review existing labor agreements for cost savings, and restricted federal workers who act as union officials from using more than 25% of their work hours for that purpose.

The unions have 45 days from the date of the appeals court’s July 16 ruling to ask for a rehearing and potentially forestall implementation of the executive orders.

Telework, Union Representation

The department wants to make it easier to remove VA employees’ eligibility for telework, Cann said. “Their initial proposal was no notice,” meaning that anyone could be told they’re no longer eligible to telework at any time, Cann said.

“We got them to consider providing 24 hours’ notice,” though this hasn’t been finalized, he said. Managers at the VA already can determine who’s eligible for telework and how much telework, if any, to make available to employees, Cann said, adding that the VA’s proposed cuts to union official time are deeply concerning.

Reduced official time affects the union’s ability to represent workers, Cann said. Unionized employees in the private sector also represent their co-workers during working hours, they just don’t keep track of the time the way the federal government does, he said.

Official time is used by federal unions for activities such as ensuring promotions are fair, establishing flexible work schedules and telework policies, and representing employees in grievances and disciplinary actions.

Unions aren’t permitted to use official time for union-specific business such as soliciting members, holding internal union meetings, electing union officers, or engaging in partisan political activities.

Win for Taxpayers?

The VA’s proposed changes, “such as redirecting some taxpayer resources that currently pay for union activity to instead fund services for veterans,” are part of the administration’s larger effort to improve efficiency and accountability across the federal government, said the Heritage Foundation’s Greszler.

“There’s simply no reason that doctors and nurses at the VA should be paid by taxpayers to be spending up to 100 percent of their time working for their union instead of treating veterans. Federal employees’ unions strongly oppose any change to the status quo, because the status quo benefits the union and its employees,” she said.

A group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) sees the matter differently. The department needs “to abandon its current destructive approach to the talks,” the senators wrote in a July 31 letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that said the department isn’t bargaining in good faith with AFGE.

(Updated with additional reporting and definition of "official time.")

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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