VA announces plans to restore collective bargaining and official time

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday announced steps it would take to comply with a January executive order from President Joe Biden. The agency's large...

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday said it would take formal steps to rescind three executive orders from former President Donald Trump and comply with new mandates from the Biden administration.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order back in January, which repealed his predecessor’s workforce policies and restored official time and collective bargaining practices.

It’s a notable step for the federal government’s second-largest department more than two months after Biden’s executive order. Unions have said VA was one of the more aggressive agencies in implementing the Trump orders.

“The VA continues to review and identify other actions informed by [the Trump executive orders] and shall, as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind, the actions identified and will issue guidance consistent with [Biden’s order],” Ophelia Hicks, acting executive director of VA’s Office of Labor Management Relations, said Friday in a letter to Alma Lee, national president of AFGE’s National VA Council.

The department on Monday confirmed to Federal News Network that it notified all of its labor organizations, including AFGE, of its plans to recognize the collective bargaining agreements in place before the previous administration’s executive orders.

For AFGE, that means VA will recognize the agreement it signed with the union back in 2011, Hicks said.

It will also restore official time to the levels in place before Trump’s 2018 executive orders, with the exception of most VA health care professionals. Former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie eliminated official time for 104,000 employees back in 2018 under the department’s Title 38 authority.

AFGE filed a lawsuit challenging VA’s 2018 official time decision, which is still pending in federal court. The union has asked VA Secretary Denis McDonough to restore official time for those health care employees but hasn’t heard a response, Thomas Dargon, staff counsel for the union’s National VA Council, said in an interview.

AFGE representatives continued to use their own leave in place of official time well after Biden restored it back in January, Dargon added.

In addition, VA will no longer charge unions rent for office space, and local facilities will work with the Office of Labor Management Relations to restore or find comparable space, the letter reads.

“Some facilities were more cooperative in working to restore that space and those furnishings to locals, but other facilities were waiting for guidance from VA central office,” Dargon said.

The department will also re-provision email addresses and other equipment to union representatives and will reissue parking spaces, Hicks said.

VA referenced guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, which instructed agencies to quickly identify and then revise or rescind any actions they may have taken in the last few years to implement the Trump workforce orders. This included matters where the Federal Service Impasses Panel imposed a decision, or matters that are pending before an agency for its review, which VA acknowledged in its letter to AFGE.

“It’s a step in the right direction, and we hope it’s indicative of further labor-management cooperative and partnership from VA between AFGE and its other labor union partners,” Dargon said.

For AFGE, it never stopped recognizing the 2011 agreement between the union and VA, despite attempts by the department to impose new contract provisions from the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

Still, AFGE is looking for the department to do more. It’s hopeful the latest guidance from VA’s central office will give individual facilities the top cover they need to fully restore official time and office space.

It’s also looking for a formal position on official time for VA health care professionals. Dargon said the department is still prohibiting official time for those employees.

“We’re certainly encouraged by the early efforts of the Biden-Harris administration to restore collective bargaining relationships and strengthen unions and empower the career federal workforce,” he said. “We look forward to working with Secretary McDonough and his team to make sure that’s a reality.”

VA’s latest guidance doesn’t indicate how it will handle future collective bargaining negotiations with its unions.

Both VA and AFGE had been locked in contentious negotiations over a new contract for more than a year. Those negotiations have fizzled out in recent months, after a partial, tentative bargaining agreement failed ratification and negotiation sessions in late January ended without a resolution.

AFGE has been eager to turn the page and either drop negotiations altogether or start over under new VA leadership. In its March 5 guidance, OPM instructed agencies to drop any bargaining proposals that effectuated the Trump orders and recommend new ones.

“We’ve requested that the department rescind its notice to reopen and renegotiate our contract,” Dargon said. “We have not received a response on that request yet, but if the VA wants to come back to the table and continue those negotiations, AFGE is ready, willing and able to do that in good faith and reach an agreement that best serves veterans and employees.”

When asked about the status of implementing Biden’s executive order at a hearing last week, VA Secretary Denis McDonough teased some announcements “in the next days and weeks” but didn’t provide specifics.

He promised Reps. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.) to look into specific complaints about the order’s implementation at local VA facilities in their districts.

“A unionized workforce is a strong workforce. Collective bargaining is a powerful [tool] for a strong workforce. The evidence of this is manifold, but in the VA the evidence of it is the performance over the course of the pandemic,” McDonough said last week. “At the end of the day I’ve made a commitment in taking this job that I will make every decision based on whether that decision increases access and improves outcomes for veterans. I see questions around labor management relations in that same framework. We’ll be making sure that we both make those decisions and then implement them consistent with empowering a workforce that is our number one asset.”

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