Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees are spending so much time performing job-protecting civil service union work that the quality of care provided to sick veterans suffers, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
The VA has no clue how many hours employees devote to “official time” — time spent working for unions during work hours on the taxpayer dime — because the VA has no standardized system for recording and calculating official time agency-wide, GAO found. But one thing is clear — official time jeopardizes patient care.
“Managers said it is sometimes difficult to accommodate such employees’ use of official time because it may detract from these employees’ non-union responsibilities,” GAO said. “Specifically, a manager from one group we interviewed said it can be especially challenging to find other staff to fill in for employees who are responsible for serving patients, yet spend most of their work time on official time.”
The report did not elaborate on how official time affects veterans’ health. (RELATED: Deadly, Scandal-Ridden VA Hospital Addresses Crisis With … Interior Designer)
Government records show about 290,000 bargaining unit employees spent nearly 1.1 million hours in fiscal year 2015 on union activities — and 346 of those employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time, according to GAO. But GAO couldn’t verify the figures, as agency data is “inconsistent” and “unreliable,” the congressional watchdog determined from reviewing five unidentified VA facilities.
“If VA does not obtain more consistent data on the amount of official time used by employees, it will not be able to accurately track the amount of official time used by employees in order to ensure public resources are being used appropriately,” GAO said.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs asked GAO to review VA’s use of official time after the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said the VA in fiscal year 2012 reported spending 1.1 million hours on union activity, out of 3.5 million hours spent on official time government-wide.
Rep. Phil Roe, the committee’s chairman, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “this is not about whether or not you support an employee’s right to unionize, but whether or not it’s acceptable for official time – which is funded by taxpayers – to be spent on union activities. Serving veterans and a VA employees’ official duties should be prioritized above all else while an employee is on official time.”
GAO found VA facilities have two systems for employees to record time and attendance — an old system and a new one, and the latter system’s rollout won’t be complete until 2018 at the earliest. The old system has no specific codes to categorize official time, and officials are giving employees inconsistent training on how to use the new system, the report said. Employees at two of the three facilities GAO reviewed with the new system weren’t using it to record official time.
The VA also lets facilities use a “range of options” for calculating official time — including records, estimates, and other methods, resulting in “inconsistent data,” GAO said.
“Without reliable data, VA cannot monitor the use of official time agency-wide or share reliable data with the Office of Personnel Management, which reports on the government-wide use of official time,” GAO said.
The new time and attendance system should resolve those issues in the future, but for now, the data is unreliable, GAO said.
GAO found the five unnamed facilities it reviewed devoted less than one percent of their overall square footage to union work. Union officials at each of the five facilities either had their own office space for union activities or shared designated office space.
Union officials from three of the five groups interviewed complained that “limited space for representational activities was a challenge,” GAO said.
The VA negotiates with five career civil service unions — the National Association of Government Employees, American Federation of Government Employees, National Nurses United, National Federation of Federal Employees, and Service Employees International Union.
GAO recommended the VA make sure timekeepers at all VA facilities receive training and consistent guidance on recording official time and standardize the methods facilities use to calculate official time.
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