VA Has No Way of Knowing How Much It Spends on Employees’ Union Activity

The department’s official time data is "unreliable," GAO says.

The Veterans Affairs Department has no standardized way to measure how much time employees spend conducting union representation activities, according to a new report, preventing it from determining how much it spends on those workers.

VA reported its employees spent more than 1 million hours on official time in fiscal 2015, but a Government Accountability Office report found that number cannot be trusted. Official time allows employees to work in government offices and collect government salaries while conducting union work such as mediation.

While the Office of Personnel Management collects annual, governmentwide official time data, it has no set standards for how it should be collected. Official time management is established through collective bargaining agreements and often set as a percentage of an employee’s time. VA has no standardized metric for measuring it, in part because it uses two different time and attendance systems. The newer system has specific codes for different types of official time, while the older system has no such codes. The department expects to have all of its facilities onto the more updated of the two by 2018.

One of the five facilities GAO visited for its audit did not record official time anywhere, while two recorded it outside the time and attendance systems. VA has failed to properly train employees on how to keep track of official time, GAO said.

“The inconsistent recording of information raises questions about VA’s ability to monitor the use of official time and ensure that public resources are being used effectively,” GAO wrote.

To provide departmentwide data to OPM, VA’s Office of Labor-Management Relations collects annual data on its own official time tracking system. That process relies upon management representatives manually inputting information into the system. Those inputs are unreliable, according to GAO.

“VA allows facilities to use written records, estimates, samples, or surveys of official time hours used, or any combination of these methods to determine the amount of official time used by employees at their facility,” the auditors wrote, noting the total VA official time “cannot be easily determined.”

In fiscal 2015, the LMR system showed VA employees spent just over 1 million hours on official time. About 350 employees worked full time on union duties, and office space reserved for union workers made up less than 1 percent of the facilities GAO visited. GAO called the data unreliable, however, noting nearly 40 percent of the department’s 332 facilities provided only estimates of their workers’ official time hours.

Both VA managers and union officials told GAO official time provided the benefit of improving conflict resolution and boosting communication between management and the workforce. Managers said challenges arose from managing the schedules of official time employees, while union representatives faulted the lack of flexibility.

VA agreed to standardize its processes for measuring official time and to improve training on the subject. It also said it would stop using the LMR system in favor of time and attendance figures.