The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has failed to properly track taxpayer funded hours spent working on union tasks, according to testimony Thursday.
Official time is a policy that allows federal officials to do union work instead of their actual jobs. The VA scandal was partially blamed on the practice, when it broke in 2014. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified before a congressional hearing that the agency isn’t even properly tracking official time hours.
“We assessed the reliability of the data by reviewing relevant agency documentation about the data and the systems that produced them and interviewing knowledgeable agency officials, among other steps,” GAO workforce director Cindy Brown Barnes testified. “Based on our assessment, we found the data were not sufficiently reliable to determine the amount of official time used by VA employees and the purposes for which it was used.”
The GAO testimony summarized a more detailed report from Jan. 24. The GAO found the issue primarily stems from how official time hours are being recorded and then calculated. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) argues official time allows federal unions to properly fulfill their legally mandated duties.
“These legal provisions have produced an efficient and effective mechanism for the fulfillment of the duty of fair representation,” AFGE President J. David Cox testified during the hearing. “Federal employees agree to serve as volunteer employee representatives, and agencies allow them to use a reasonable amount of official time to engage in representational activities while on duty status.”
The Capital Research Center (CRC) blamed official time for contributing to an agency scandal that left numerous veterans dead. The VA scandal first broke in 2014 when it was revealed the agency was subjecting veterans to incredibly long wait times and questionable treatment practices.
“While veterans of the U.S. armed forces wait for health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is paying hundreds of its employees to work full-time for labor unions,” CRC said in a report from 2014.
Republicans responded to the scandal by introducing legislation that would make it easier to dismiss agency officials. The VA Accountability Act of 2015 would allow the veterans affairs secretary to more easily remove or demote employees based on performance or misconduct. Unions decried the bill as an attack on worker rights.
Federal statute allows government employees to use official time to perform certain union representational activities. The activities include negotiating and processing grievances. The practice is also used by some state agencies, where it is known as release time.
The practice is commonly used by federal agencies. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) found in a 2014 report that official time use increased from approximately 2.9 million hours to over 3.4 million from 2008 to 2012.
The GAO made several recommendations to address the issue in its earlier report. It notes the department should increase efforts to provide consistent guidance, standardize the methods used by facilities for determining the amount of official time used, and take steps to update its tracking systems.
The VA did not respond to a request for comment by InsideSources.