The Department of Veterans Affairs will restore official time to its health care workforce, part of a sweeping settlement agreement the agency reached with its largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees.
The agreement also sets a timeline and ground rules for the two parties to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, and it allows VA employees who previously performed representational duties at their own time and expense over the last two-to-three years to receive reimbursement.
Both VA and the AFGE touted the agreement this week, which they said signaled the beginning of a new working relationship. VA Secretary Denis McDonough has taken to acknowledging the department’s “union partners” in recent congressional testimony.
“More than 79% of VA’s workforce are bargaining unit employees, and we are working to cultivate strong, lasting relationships with the unions that represent the population of the department’s union workers, so as to ensure world class service to veterans,” McDonough said Wednesday in a statement.
The department started restoring official time and office space for union officials earlier this spring, when it announced formal steps rolling back the three 2018 executive orders from former President Donald Trump.
McDonough restored official time to the levels they were previously before the Trump orders but didn’t reinstate it for Title 38 health care professionals. Former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie eliminated official time for some 104,000 medical professionals back in 2018 under the department’s Title 38 authorities.
The new VA-AFGE settlement agreement rescinds Wilkie’s order and grants official time back to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and others.
Notably for the VA workforce, the new agreement also establishes a process for employees who performed representational duties in the absence of official time during the last three years to file a claim for reimbursement.
Union representatives who are successful in the claims process will receive compensation for their time spent on those activities, according to the agreement.
VA will also reimburse AFGE and their union representatives for any out-of-pocket expenses they incurred — for office space or IT equipment, as examples — as a result of Trump’s 2018 executive orders, said Thomas Dargon, a supervisory attorney for AFGE’s national council.
“It’s making whole the employees who were unable to use official time because of the VA’s implementation of the Trump EOs and [Wilkie’s] decision, so it’s remedying the harm caused by those actions,” he said in an interview.
AFGE doesn’t know exactly how many employees may receive reimbursement — or how large those reimbursements might be. The impact is likely significant, Dargon said, given AFGE’s size. It represents 265,000 employees at the department.
“The VA implemented these policy decisions at the national level,” he said. “It wasn’t just a situation where we saw one facility providing office space and another facility not providing office space. These directions came out from the highest levels of VA [central office], and so I have every reason to believe that they impacted every local that we represent and the restrictions affected every representative for AFGE at VA.”
VA will also rescind the disciplinary actions it took against eight AFGE officials who apparently violated one of the Trump orders in the last three years, according to the agreement. The department will expunge those actions from the employees’ personnel records.
In addition, the department said it will reestablish the VA national partnership council, which was disbanded back in 2017. The council serves as a forum for VA leadership and union representatives to discuss employee concerns and make collaborative decisions, the department said.
AFGE National President Everett Kelley said the union looked forward to resetting its relationship with VA.
“This settlement agreement sets a new standard for what labor-management relations in the federal government should look like,” Kelley said in a statement earlier this week. “Now is the time for other agencies to follow suit.”
Bargaining on new contract will begin next year
Beyond restoring official time for all VA employees, the department and union have agreed to erase all previous bargaining history from the last three years and essentially start over, Dargon said.
That includes the old bargaining proposals VA exchanged with AFGE back in 2019, grievances, arbitration and any arbitration awards, as well as the November 2020 decision from the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which rewrote much of the existing contract.
VA and AFGE have chosen six articles each from the existing 2011 contract to bargain over in upcoming negotiations.
AFGE expects to return to the bargaining table with VA early next year. The two parties have agreed to bargain over discipline and adverse action, performance appraisals, merit promotion, temporary details, employee awards, health and safety and technology used to track performance at the Veterans Benefits Administration, among other topics.
The remaining 55 articles from the previous contract will roll over into the future agreement, Dargon said.
The two parties will bargain over a new contract for 48-to-52 weeks, according to the new settlement agreement. That’s a stark contrast to the timeline set under the previous administration, when VA and AFGE were expected to bargain more than 60 articles in 18 weeks, Dargon said.
Tensions between VA and AFGE have been high over the last few years, and lawsuits and other grievances have piled up.
The union ultimately agreed to drop 17 different lawsuits, national grievances and other legal disputes as part of its agreement with VA. The department will pay AFGE nearly $300,000 for attorneys fees incurred with those cases.
The union still has some ongoing legal disputes with VA, including a disagreement over the department’s implementation of the Accountability Act. The Federal Labor Relations Authority has ordered VA to reinstate employees who were improperly removed or disciplined without a chance to improve their performance.
“Our docket is still very deep,” Dargon said. “We have a number of cases that are still working their way through the grievance and arbitration process. The ones resolved under this agreement are really important ones that we needed to resolve to be able to reset our relationship and move on from the Trump-era policies that got us here in the first place.”