Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in a letter addressed to Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki claim that from January 1, 2012 through February 2013, 188 VA employees were paid full-time to do union-related work instead of assisting the nation’s veterans.

“Recently, it has come to our attention that a number of VA employees are paid government salaries, funded entirely by taxpayers, to perform work totally unrelated to their formal governmental duties,” the letter reads.

“In a practice known as ‘official time’ taxpayers pay for federal employees to perform union duties instead of their formal jobs they were initially hired to do,” it adds. “Federal employees not serving veterans during official time could lead to the failure of VA’s top goals and the well-being of those who have sacrificed in the service our nation, could be compromised. “

Sens. Tom Coburn and Portman Claim 188 VA Employees Spend Time Doing Union Work, Backlog Continues to Grow

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). (Getty Images)

The Obama administration has come under attack in recent month for the VA’s failure in addressing veterans’ disability benefits. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney promised this week that the administration would do everything in its power to fix the VA backlog issue by at least 2015.

The senators, citing official government documents, also took issue with the practice of putting employees on “official time.”

“During this time of sequestration and tight budgets, it is important to know how so many employees can be spared to serve the interest of outside groups, instead of carrying out jobs that are essential to the health, safety and transition of our nation’s veterans,” the letter states.

“Documents show that your department recently employed at least 85 VA nurses, some with six-figure salaries, who were in 100 percent official time status,” the letter continues.

“At the same time, the department is recruiting more people to fill open nursing positions. USA Jobs currently has openings for hundreds of nursing positions to be filled.”

The two GOP senators are clearly unhappy with these facts. In an attempt to straighten out the issue, Sens. Portman and Coburn sent Shinseki the following questions:

1) How many VA employees work official time 100% of the time?  Please provide figures over the last ten years– as well as any comments or context you might have as to why the numbers have fluctuated.  Please also include the employees’ title, salary, and duty station.

2) Please describe and provide the job descriptions of what these employees do in a given day for the VA.  How do these activities relate to the mission of the VA?

3) If an employee is on official time 100% of the time, does the VA have to hire and compensate another employee to perform the duties the person would otherwise perform in their position of record? If so, how much did this cost the VA last year?

4) What is the process for putting a VA employee on official time 100% of the time? Does such an employee go through competitive hiring practices as do other federal employees?

5) How does your agency evaluate such employees for performance? Are employees who spend 100% of their time on official time eligible for pay raises? If so, please provide the amount of annual increases (including step increases, bonuses, incentive payments, awards, or other money in addition to base salary), broken down by year over the last 10 years, given to employees on official time. Please also explain the process for determining pay raises for employees on 100% official time.

6) If an employee is on 100% official time, is this employee expected to report to his or her work station on a daily basis?  How many of these employees work at VA facilities and how many do not? Can employees on official time work from home? If so, please report the number of hours employees on official time worked from home or away from their primary duty station.

7) Of the employees who are on 100% official time, do any of their positions of record reflect positions the VA is currently seeking to fill, “hard to fill” positions, or positions which the VA has a critical need to fill? Could this result in any service disruptions to veterans?

8) Has the VA agreed to any current collective bargaining agreements that include language on official time? If so, what did the VA agree to? Who approved these provisions?

9) Have any members of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals been on 100% official time over the past 10 years? If so, how many?

10) Have any personnel assigned to processing disability claims been on 100% official time over the past 10 years?  If so, how many?  How might official time affect VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog?

Here’s a copy of the signed letter:

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