Unions sue VA over move to curtail official time

Three federal unions are suing Department of Veterans Affairs for its plan to alter its collective bargaining deal to move more than 400 employees off of union work.

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Three federal unions are suing the Department of Veterans Affairs over a new policy restricting the use of paid time to conduct union business.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union, along with the National Federation of Federal Employees and the National Association of Government Employees is attempting to block a plan by VA to end so-called official time for more than 430 medical professionals.

Those workers devote themselves full-time to union business under the provisions of the existing collective bargaining agreement negotiated during the Obama Administration. VA announced Nov. 8 that it was going to "repudiate certain provisions" of that agreement – a move the unions argue is unlawful.

"This action is the latest overreach in their quest to bust unions and ensure that workers have no ability to blow the whistle or fight harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace," said AFGE president J. David Cox. "We don't relish having to go to the courts every time the administration oversteps and tries to trample on our rights, but we're not going to back down."

This lawsuit follows another legal action filed earlier this year that ended up invalidated aspects of three executive orders issued in May. In August, the court ruled in favor of the unions, including on a provision proposing to limit official time. The Trump administration is currently appealing that decision.

Despite the adverse ruling, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management Margaret Weichert last week issued a notice to agencies pointing out certain parts of Trump's workforce executive orders were not invalidated, specifically citing agencies' authorities in collective bargaining.

According to a report estimating the use of official time released by OPM earlier this year, VA was one of the leading agencies in money spent on official time, paying just over $49 million in wages for official time.

But unions argue investment in official time spent saves time and money, handles workplace complaints and exposes fraud and abuse — and represents a miniscule percentage of VA employees and wages.

Cox also pointed to the 45,000 vacant positions at VA as hardly being affected by moving 400 employees off official time and back to full-time positions.

"The administration would have you believe that there is some rampant misuse of official time, but they can't cite when or how," said Cox. "And in reality, silencing these workers and the tens of thousands they represent will do nothing to increase access to care or help close the gap in vacancies plaguing the VA."

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