A freshman Republican from Texas wants to limit how much time Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees can do “official time” work for their union instead of advancing the agency’s basic mission of serving veterans seeking health care.
Rep. Jodey Arrington’s Veterans, Employees and Taxpayer (VET) Protection Act prohibits all VA employees from spending more than 50 percent of their hours on official time; all VA workers involved in direct patient care from spending more than 25 percent of their hours on official time; and highly-paid caretakers like physicians and optometrists from conducting any union business on the clock.
“If you don’t fix these bureaucratic hangups and these cultural problems and these systemic problems internal to the VA, I don’t think you’re ever going to get these programs to work for the taxpayer and the veterans,” Arrington, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, told The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group Wednesday.
The bill — which accompanies other official time reform bills this session, such as one that requiring the Office of Personnel Management to issue annual reports on agencies’ use of official time — comes on the heels of a February Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealing the VA doesn’t know how many hours its employees spend on official time.
Government records show about 290,000 VA bargaining unit employees spent nearly 1.1 million hours in 2015 on union activities, and 346 of those employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time, according to GAO. But GAO called those figures “unreliable,” since the VA doesn’t consistently track official time. (RELATED: Vet Affairs Paid Bad Boss $85,000 To Quite, Then Re-Hire Him Anyway)
Managers of the huge department also complained in the report that official time detracts from patient care, as they have trouble finding other VA employees to fill in for people on official time. (RELATED: Public Outraged After VA Complete Ignores Elderly Veterans In Pain)
Arrington called it “unconscionable” for any VA employee to spend 100 percent of his time on union activities, and said limiting official time to 50 percent is “more than reasonable.”
“I would like to go further than my bill — I’m being very candid — but I don’t know that I could get the votes in the Senate to get it passed,” Arrington said.
Democrats in a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) hearing earlier this month complained any restrictions on union activity will hamper whistleblowers, who may turn to unions to avoid retaliation.
But Arrington called that argument a “red herring.”
“You’ve already got whistleblower protections in place, that’s the law,” Arrington said. “And you have the courts. You have Congress as an oversight.”
Arrington said unions aren’t necessarily bad, blaming Congress for allowing official time to ever take priority over patient care or employee performance.
“I think it’s gotten way out of control, and we’ve put way too much emphasis on employee protection and not enough emphasis on employee performance and overall accountability,” Arrington said.
Arrington said he will soon schedule a hearing on the bill with his subcommittee before it goes to a markup session before the full committee.
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