Unions sue VA over decision to cut official time for some employees

Federal employee unions are suing the Department of Veterans Affairs over its recent decision to eliminate official time for medical professionals.

The American Federation of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees and National Association of Government Employees have filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The unions argue that VA’s decision to repudiate existing collective bargaining agreements and eliminate official time for as many as 104,000 medical professionals violates provisions in Title 38. VA said it would immediately remove 430 Title 38 employees from official time starting Nov. 15.

Together, the unions are seeking permanent injunctive relief from the court.

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“Official time is in the best interest of the government, the taxpayer and, in the case of the VA, our veterans,” Randy Erwin, NFFE president, said in a statement. “The crux of the issue is that under official time, VA employees serve as an independent voice regarding working conditions, safety issues and mismanagement. Plus, they represent whistleblowers and other employees who make credible claims against fraud, waste, abuse and political coercion and corruption. Official time is an internal system of checks and balances, and to perform these duties as required by law, employees from all professions are needed to serve on official time status.”

This is the second time this year that federal unions have banned together to collectively sue the Trump administration. More than a dozen organizations filed a joint lawsuit with the same district court over the president’s May executive orders on collective bargaining, official time and employee removals.

The court invalidated key provisions of those orders back in August, but the Trump administration is appealing the decision. The judge invalidated the president’s attempts to set specific limits on official time, arguing that the provisions ultimately violated the intent of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and Federal Labor-Management Relations Statute, and that the efforts hindered agencies’ ability to bargain in good faith.

Erwin said VA’s decision to eliminate official time for some employees is in “direct response” to this recent court ruling.

AFGE National President J. David Cox echoed Erwin’s sentiments. VA’s decision to cut official time violates the Civil Service Reform Act, because the law established it as in the public’s interest, Cox added.

“This action is the latest overreach in [VA’s] quest to bust unions and ensure that workers have no ability to blow the whistle or fight harassment, discrimination and retaliation in the workplace,” he said.

According to available data, VA traditionally has been one of the heavier users of official time. As the second-largest federal agency, VA employees spent more than 1 million hours on official time in fiscal 2016, which cost about $49 million.

Some members of Congress have expressed their frustration with official time across government, but they have been particularly outraged with its use at the VA. A few lawmakers have introduced legislation to limit official time at VA specifically and across government, but no bill has passed Congress.

Federal employees spent a total of 3.6 million hours on official time in fiscal 2016, according to the most recent report from the Office of Personnel Management. This data, however, is likely unreliable, because agencies haven’t been required to consistently track it. Both the Government Accountability Office and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have made separate attempts to more accurately count the cost and scope of official time across government but have run into roadblocks.