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How the VA Justifies Paying Employees for Full-Time Collective Bargaining

“VA staff should be focused on fulfilling the promises made to America’s heroes rather than on performing union duties to secure greater benefits for themselves."

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, The Honorable Robert A. McDonald, speaks onstage at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America - 10th Anniversary Heroes Gala on November 13, 2014 in New York City.
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Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for IAVA

The Department of Veterans Affairs allows 259 employees to spend 100 percent of their paid work time doing only union organizing work, according to a federal audit.

The October report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the federal government has underestimated what taxpayers are spending on more than 10,000 federal workers who bill at least some of their collective bargaining time to the public.

The VA ranks highest among eight agencies that allow employees to spend all of their paid work time involved in union activities, according to the report. The distant runners-up were 44 employees for the Department of Treasury and 43 employees for the Department of Homeland Security during fiscal year 2013.

his Feb. 6, 2013, file photo shows the exterior of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh. The Department of Veterans Affairs fired Terry Gerigk Wolf, the director of the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. The department said internal investigators determined she committed unspecified "conduct unbecoming a senior executive". (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File) The Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh. (AP/Keith Srakocic)

"Employees who are engaged in union representation duties help the VA address workplace issues while helping the VA to carry out its mission," VA spokeswoman Genevieve Billia told TheBlaze. She noted that the VA "has a heavily unionized workforce."

In all, 386 federal employees across eight agencies charged 100 percent of their paid work time to conducting union activities. Still, of all the employees in the 10 total agencies reviewed, just 2 percent of employees collected any federal pay for union time.

The union time is referred to as “official time” under government collective bargaining agreements. “Official time” covers activities such as labor negotiations, handling of any grievances from workers, resolving health and safety concerns, and other activities for which the federal government pays them as if they were on duty.

The GAO report found 10,562 employees from the reviewed agencies use at least some “official time,” totaling 2.5 million paid hours in fiscal year 2013. The department of Homeland Security and Transportation led in the number of employees getting some “official time,” with 2,960 and 2,806 employees respectively.

The GAO investigation was requested by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Phil Gingery (R-Ga.) and retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

“With veterans literally dying waiting to see a doctor, VA staff should be focused on fulfilling the promises made to America’s heroes rather than on performing union duties to secure greater benefits for themselves,” Coburn said in a statement.

Billia told TheBlaze that the federal government has long recognized that collective bargaining among civil servants is in the public interest.

“VA's workers, many of whom are veterans themselves, are dedicated to serving veterans and their families,” she said. “As required by law, union representatives are authorized to perform representational duties during their work hours. In the occasional instance that a VA employee becomes a 100 percent union representative, VA takes steps to ensure that person's duties are still performed.”

While the Office of Personnel Management estimates the government spent about $156 million on union activities in fiscal year 2012, the GAO estimated the cost is about 15 percent higher in four of the 10 agencies reviewed. The GAO report said that union time could cost about $5 million more than official government estimates.

The GAO report said the OPM's calculation is outdated.

“OPM said reporting on official time is not a priority at this time and they have used the same methodology for preparing its cost estimate since fiscal year 2002,” the report said.

The GAO recommended that the OPM “consider other approaches to developing its cost estimate,” and “work with agencies to identify opportunities to increase efficiency of data collection.”

Tim Curry, the OPM deputy associate director of partnership and labor relations, said the agency appreciates the GAO findings and recommendations.

“OPM has consistently, and often, stated that labor and management have a shared responsibility to ensure that official time is authorized and used appropriately,” Curry told TheBlaze. “We will work with agencies to identify opportunities to increase the efficiency of official time data collection and reporting.”

The 10 agencies reviewed were the VA, DHS, the Treasury Department, the Labor Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Commerce Department, the Transportation Department, the National Science Foundation, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Railroad Board.

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