AFGE members protest the closing of VA facilities in 2016.

AFGE members protest the closing of VA facilities in 2016. AFGE

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VA Proposes New Union Contract That Guts Telework, Official Time, Employee Rights

Department officials publicize proposal they say would re-center the focus on patient care, but union officials say department is making a "mockery" of the collective bargaining process.

The Veterans Affairs Department publicly announced Thursday that management issued its first proposal to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the nation’s largest federal employee union, highlighting an effort to severely restrict the use of official time.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie argued the new proposal would allow the department to better focus its efforts on veterans’ care.

“These steps aren’t anti-union, they’re pro-veteran,” Wilkie wrote in an opinion piece published in InsideSources.com. “We’re not asking the union to give up any of its legal rights, we just want to reclaim the rights Congress gave to the VA to manage this department in a way that prioritizes veteran care.”

Officials with AFGE blasted the proposal as a “sham,” intended to punish workers without regard for the mission of the department.

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

AFGE said that the department’s 331-page proposal, obtained by Government Executive, was delivered to the union 10 minutes before the department published its statement. The proposed contract guts a variety of provisions governing the VA workplace, including articles on telework, official time, child care programs and even whistleblower protections.

The proposal significantly alters the way employees can request to work remotely, and requires those with telework agreements to come to their physical duty stations four days per week. Those with compressed work schedules—for instance, employees who work four 10-hour days per week—would not be eligible for the program, and employees would be required to re-apply to work remotely every four months.

Additionally, the department calls for a cap on the use of official time by union employees at 5 percent of their duty hours, well below the 25 percent cap mandated by President Trump in an executive order that is currently under judicial review.

The proposal removes all language related to how the department provides reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, as well as a program by which employees with chronic health conditions can elect to take disability retirement if their condition impacts their performance at work.

VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said that in the case of several articles that were removed, like the ones regarding child care and whistleblower protections, the language was unneeded because it restates applicable law. But in several other portions of the document, the department has proposed adding language citing the U.S. Code “for informational purposes.”

“Protections for VA whistleblowers are well defined in federal laws, such as the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” Cashour said. “No provision in this CBA or any other CBA has the authority to supersede federal law.”

The contract also would seemingly cripple the union’s ability to work on behalf of federal employees. It would strip the union of the right to office space hosted by the department, and requires all labor-management communications to go through one person: the union’s national representative. In grievance proceedings, the department would no longer offer travel per diem to union officials, although it would still provide that benefit to employees who file grievances without the help of AFGE.

The proposal strips language mandating two-party consent for the recording of conversations, and in its place states that the department “has a legitimate business, national security and cybersecurity interest for monitoring employees’ use of government property and equipment.” Additionally, employees who seek to go off campus during work hours to meet with a union representative must tell their supervisor about the “nature” of said meeting.

Besides removing a variety of topics from the grievance process, the proposed contract would require AFGE to reimburse the department for the salaries and benefits of management officials who are called in to participate in grievance proceedings. Robert Tobias, former president of the National Treasury Employees Union and a distinguished practitioner in residence at American University, said such a provision is unprecedented in the federal sector.

“There is no agreement in the federal government that has that kind of language,” he said. “The closest thing that comes to that are [provisions on] arbitrators’ fees. Some contracts would say that arbitration fees are paid fully by the losing party, but that’s rare.”

Cashour said that the reimbursement provision is an attempt to recoup costs to redirect back toward veterans’ care.

“When department employees—at the demand of the union—are required to cease providing medical care or other veteran services, to prepare for and engage in union-demanded activities such as grievances, disciplinary appeals, or arbitration, it’s only fair for the union to reimburse taxpayers for this time spent not taking care of veterans.”

Another unusual aspect of the proposed contract is its duration. Under the terms set forth by the department, the collective bargaining agreement would be in effect for 10 years. And it strips from the previous agreement the reopener clause, which is a standard piece of a labor-management contract that allows parties to reopen portions of an agreement for renegotiation before its expiration date.

“The norm is three years, because that’s the maximum period of time that a collective bargaining agreement can remain in effect and not be challenged by another union,” Tobias said. “At the end of three years, another union could file a petition and require a [new] election . . . It would be irresponsible for a union to agree to a 10-year duration or, for that matter, for management to insist on a 10-year duration.”

Negotiations on the contract proposal are set to begin in June, and could run as late as December.