Non-Clinical Topics

Unions Go to Court to Stop VA Changes in ‘Official Time’ Policy

by Sandra Basu

December 11, 2018

WASHINGTON—VA’s announcement that it would eliminate paid union-related official time for medical professionals, as of Nov. 15, has drawn a lawsuit from unions representing the agency’s employees.

The American Federation of Government Employees along with the National Federation of Federal Employees and the National Association of Government Employees filed their lawsuit the day before implementation was planned.

“We will fight to ensure every employee has a voice in the workplace, and we will not stop fighting until those rights are protected,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr.

The move came after VA said it would be “repudiating” certain provisions of master collective bargaining agreements it had previously accepted with the following unions: American Federation of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, National Association of Government Employees and National Nurses United.

According to the agency, the repudiation will apply to all of VA’s nearly 104,000 Title 38 employees “eliminating all forms of taxpayer-funded union work” for the following professions:

  • Physician
  • Dentist
  • Podiatrist
  • Chiropractor
  • Optometrist
  • Registered Nurse
  • Physician assistant
  • Expanded-Duty Dental Auxiliary

The policy change will affect nearly 430 current medical professionals who serve in union roles but were to have moved back to healthcare positions in November, according to VA, which defended the action.

“It’s common sense. Allowing healthcare workers to do taxpayer-funded union work instead of serving veterans impacts patient care negatively,” said VA Acting Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd.

Official time is when federal employees are paid their regular salary while representing a union. The VA cited as an example a VA RN who was elected as a local union official. Although she no longer provides patient care, VA said she continues to receive a nurse’s salary, which is more than $90,000 per year at VAMCs.

In filing the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Cox, a VA nurse for more than 20 years, blamed the action on President Donald Trump.

“This year the president has launched several attacks against working people, with a heavy emphasis on targeting the women and men who have dedicated their lives to caring for our nation’s veterans,” Cox said in an AFGE press release. “From his now-illegal Executive Orders in May, to the recent decision by the VA to remove Title 38 workers from official time—President Trump has made it clear he doesn’t want doctors, nurses, dentists, and many others to have a voice in the workplace. And he’ll go to extreme lengths to silence them and bust their union.”

‘The Latest Overreach’

Cox called the change in official time policy “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.”

More than a million hours doing taxpayer-funded union work cost a total of more than $49 million in fiscal year 2016, the VA said, adding it was in the process of “renegotiating several of VA’s national collective bargaining agreements to ensure official time allocations are putting veterans first.”

“The negotiations are guided by federal law that permits VA to set taxpayer-funded union work (also known as official time) amounts contractually that are reasonable, necessary and in the public interest,” the agency explained.

Unions and the Trump administration have already been at odds over employee rights with the passage of the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which contained some provisions that unions opposed.

“The new authorities caused severe cuts in the due process and existing collective bargaining rights of all VA frontline employees, as well as supervisors,” Cox told lawmakers over the summer.

Meanwhile, he noted that “removing access to this [official] time is like asking the fire department to operate without firetrucks or a firehose.”

“Clinicians use official time to raise concerns about patient safety, access to care, and staffing shortages. Silencing their voices endangers our veterans,” Cox added.

National Nurses United said in a statement that the VA “has recognized official time for 40 years, since Congress passed the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which affirmed official time is an integral part of a collective bargaining agreement.”

“Our nurses are out there on the front lines every day protecting, advocating for and caring for our respected veterans,” said NNU board member Irma Westmoreland, RN.

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