Senators Tom Coburn, (R-Okla), and Rob Portman, (R-Ohio), sent a letter Wednesday to Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki demanding answers as to why, based on government documents, 188 VA employees were paid taxpayer-funded salaries and benefits to do union work full-time from January 1, 2012 through February 2013.
The senators say that time could have been better spent helping lower joblessness and battle homelessness among vets as well as a large claims backlog, among other problems.
The senators sent the letter a day after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama is “deadly serious” about erasing a sizable backlog in veterans’ disability benefits claims by 2015.
VA "employees not performing government work could compromise the well-being of our nation’s veterans," the senators write.
The senators are questioning a federal practice dubbed “official time,” whereby taxpayers foot the bill for salaries and benefits for federal workers who perform union duties instead of the “jobs they were initially hired to do,” the senators note.
The VA is now paying for an overtime “surge" to cut its huge claims backlog, while VA workers do union work, the senators note, tax dollars that could instead be spent on vets.
This decision “is troubling,” the senators write, given the number of VA workers “who should be completely dedicated to serving veterans” but are instead authorized to work on union issues full time.
“Accepting policies that foster poor personnel management practices,” the senators say, “Will undoubtedly negatively impact veterans who could have otherwise been served by taxpayer dollars now reserved for federal employee overtime pay.”
The jobless rate for all vets as of April is at 6.2%, lower than the national average, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (click here: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t05.htm).
But unemployment is high among vets ages 18 to 24, averaging 20% in 2012, higher than the 16.4% rate for non-veterans who are the same age (click here: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/vet.nr0.htm).
The senators also note that, as the government continues with sequestration, VA employees doing full-time union work include nurses, pharmacists, psychologists, addiction specialists, social workers, health technicians, medical support assistants, therapists, dental lab technicians, dental lab assistants, police officers and security guards who are supposed to provide security for VA buildings like hospitals, among others.
“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 senators said in their letter, even though “at the same time, the department is recruiting more people to fill open nursing positions” and “USA Jobs currently has openings for hundreds of nursing positions to be filled.”
The senators now want the VA to fork over a list of employees who work on union duties “100% of the time,” including a full list of VA employees doing so over the last 10 years.
“How do these activities relate to the mission of the VA?” they ask. “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?”
The VA didn’t return calls for comment from FOX Business.
The senators also want to know if VA employees who spend 100% of their time on union duties are eligible for pay raises, step increases, bonuses, incentive payments, awards, or other money in addition to base salary.
They are also request a break down by year over the last 10 years for these sums paid to employees on union time, and an explanation “of the process for determining pay raises for employees on 100% official time.”
And the senators want the VA to tell them whether VA workers doing union duties full time can work from home, and the number of hours they did, as well as “any service disruptions to veterans” this move caused.
The VA also is being asked to tell the senators what it agreed to in any collective bargaining agreements for workers doing union duties full time, how many members of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals were on 100% union duties over the past 10 years, as well as the number of VA personnel on full-time union duties assigned to processing disability claims over the past 10 years.
Legislation approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (H.R. 568) would require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to give Congress an annual accounting of how much taxpayer money is spent on federal employees working on union duties, and how many work full-time as union representatives.
While pro-government union supporters claim the number of federal workers doing union work is minimal versus the federal workforce, and that this work is unpaid volunteer work, government sources and taxpayer groups note they are giving out incorrect, misleading information.
OPM and federal union sources note that while federal workers volunteer to do union duties, they still get paid salaries and benefits for their regular jobs.
OPM put the taxpayer cost for federal workers doing union duties at $155.6 million in fiscal 2011, up 11.9% from fiscal 2010.That sum covered “salary and benefits,” OPM says.
Federal workers volunteering to do union duties typically file grievances on behalf of federal workers, including those not represented by unions. They work on disciplinary matters, unfair labor practices and appeals, or on “labor-management workgroups,” OPM says.
But the federal taxpayer often also pays for lawyers and consultants in grievance cases, federal union officials note.
Federal union dues are not compulsory, it is illegal for federal workers to strike, and federal pay and benefits are set by law, sources note. OPM says ‘official time’ can’t be spent on union elections or conventions, or any other endeavors not linked to employment conditions.
Federal unions often volunteer on political campaigns to help re-elect Democrat politicians, even though the federal Hatch Act is supposed to ensure political neutrality by federal workers. It is unclear if federal workers are doing that work on taxpayer time.
Elizabeth MacDonald joined FOX Business Network (FBN) as stocks editor in September 2007.
Follow Elizabeth MacDonald on Twitter @LizMacDonaldFOX.