Unions on deadline to pay rent or leave VA office space, department says

Federal employee unions at the Department of Veterans Affairs have a deadline now to leave currently-occupied, government-owned office space, the agency announced Friday.

The new deadlines are part of VA’s efforts to implement the president’s May 2018 workforce executive orders after an injunction on the EOs lifted in early October.

VA will give union leaders the rental costs for currently occupied space by Dec. 13, the department said Friday. Unions have until Jan. 10 to notify VA of their plans to pay rent or vacate the space.

If VA doesn’t receive a notice, the department will assume the union plans to leave the space. Unions must leave currently occupied space and return all government equipment to the VA by Jan. 31, the department said.

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“Common sense dictates that VA employees’ main focus should be providing veterans the best possible care, benefits and customer service,” Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday in a statement. “At the same time, unions using VA facilities should have to pay their fair share.”

VA said this new practice would free up office space for veterans — or return additional revenue to the department. VA again cited the Salem VA Medical Center, where union officials occupy 7,500 square feet of space, according to the department.

The department quickly said it planned to enforce the president’s workforce executive orders shortly after the injunction on the EOs lifted. Nine provisions of the EOs had been enjoined under an August 2018 decision from a federal district court for more than a year, but the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the ruling.

Though the VA’s latest announcement is sure to anger federal employee unions, it’s consistent with two directives from the White House and the Office of Personnel Management. OPM told agencies to begin enforcing the workforce executive orders. Further guidance, OPM said, will come soon.

And the president, in an Oct. 11 memo, clarified that agencies currently engaged in bargaining negotiations should begin to enforce the EOs.

The department is currently negotiating new bargaining agreements with several unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees.

The department made a series of proposals to AFGE in May, which, if implemented, would end labor-management working groups for both parties, change current telework policies and eliminate 28 articles of AFGE’s existing collective bargaining agreement.

Negotiations between VA and AFGE are scheduled to end in mid-December.

“This is a punitive and illegal action that’s intended to silence employees and discourage them from reporting mismanagement or other abuses that harm veterans’ care,” Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s National VA Council, said in a statement. “We will pursue any and all legal options at the national and local levels to challenge this illegal activity and preserve employees’ collective bargaining rights.”

For NFFE, which said it was close to finalizing an agreement with the department, VA’s announcement comes as a surprising blow.

Suzanne Summerlin, NFFE’s deputy general counsel, said she learned of VA’s plans through the department’s Friday press release. She disputed VA’s attempts to implement the workforce executive orders without governmentwide guidance, which she argued was contingent on the EOs’ implementation and enforcement.

“These EOs are being applied in a very uneven manner,” Summerlin said. “OPM needs to issue strong guidance so we’re all on the same page, so workers at the VA are not treated any differently than workers at the Forest Service.”

VA also said Friday it would enforce other provisions of the workforce executive orders but didn’t offer details on how it would, for example, limit employees’ official time use to 25% of their work hours.

In addition, VA said it would no longer approve official time for the purposes of preparing grievances, or arbitration, another key provision in the president’s workforce executive orders.

VA already eliminated official time for Title 38 medical professionals last fall, a decision that AFGE said has already challenged the union’s ability to respond to employee claims and concerns.

“This is a coordinated plan on behalf of the White House to sow chaos and confusion inside the VA during the middle of ongoing negotiations,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, federal employee union leadership met Friday with OPM Director Dale Cabaniss, Summerlin said. They discussed the workforce executive orders and their implementation, which unions said varied widely from agency to agency.

Summerlin said Cabaniss seemed sympathetic to the unions’ concerns.

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