The Department of Veterans Affairs proposed a new collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees May 2, one that agency officials say will improve medical care, customer service and staff accountability.

But union officials say the proposed agreement strips significant protections offered under the current agreement that covers approximately 250,000 employees at the agency.

According to a VA news release, the new bargaining agreement would cut official time use at the agency from approximately 1 million man hours per year to 10,000 hours of official time, a 99 percent reduction.

Official time is used by union representatives while on the clock in their federal jobs to perform work like supporting other employees in grievance proceedings or preparing for negotiations with the agency.

According to the 2016 official time rates — the most recent published by the Office of Personnel Management — the VA’s use of official time calculates out to about 3.53 hours per bargaining unit employee per year.

The federal government average in 2016 was 2.97 hours per employee per year.

Under the new proposal and assuming the same number of bargaining unit employees, union representatives would have about two minutes of official time to use per employee per year, which the agency said will direct more that $48 million per year into other services.

“Secretary [Robert] Wilkie is making a mockery of the collective bargaining process to do the bidding of President Trump,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said. “This is all part of the Trump administration’s strategy to force the VA to fail, thereby paving the road to privatization.”

In May 2018, President Donald Trump issued three executive orders altering the treatment and collective bargaining of federal employees, which included a requirement that union reps use at least 75 percent of their time doing agency work, rather than on official time.

Significant sections of those orders were overturned by a district court judge in August of that same year, but the administration has appealed that decision.

Under the Trump administration, the VA has been aggressive in attempts to curtail official time, deciding in November 2018 that certain medical employees at the agency would not be allowed to use such time. That rule was brought to court by AFGE shortly after its introduction.

The new agreement would also empower frontline supervisors, streamline the hiring and training process and ensure the bargaining agreement doesn’t interfere with agency modernization legislation, according to the VA news release.

“It’s time for a reset in VA’s approach to labor-management relations. A reluctance to challenge the status quo produced the current agreement, which includes many benefits that favor the union rather than the veterans we are charged with serving,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in the news release.

“With VA facing thousands of vacancies, these proposals could add more than one million man-hours per year back into our work force — a vital influx of resources that would make an almost immediate difference for veterans and the employees who care for them. These proposals make clear that service to veterans must come first in all that we do, and I look forward to working with AFGE to ensure we achieve that goal.”

But according to AFGE, the proposal also eliminates 42 articles entirely or in part that concern areas such as employee training, workplace health and safety, and protection from whistleblower retaliation.

“As a veteran myself, it makes me sick to see how little regard this administration shows to the workers who serve our veterans day in and day out,” said AFGE District 3 National Vice President Phil Glover in a news release.

“VA employees deserve to be treated with the same respect we expect them to show the veterans they serve.”

The current collective bargaining agreement between AFGE and the VA has been in place since 2011, and the union and agency must now begin negotiations on the new proposed agreement.

Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.

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