Unions can keep office space if they pay their "fair share," VA says as it implements Trump's executive orders.
The Veterans Affairs Department will evict unions that have office space in agency facilities or force them to pay rent by early next year, as VA begins implementing executive orders issued by President Trump.
The department will also severely restrict the unions’ ability to conduct representational work while on the clock as part of a process known as official time. Union officials will only be able to spend one-quarter of their time doing such work and cannot provide assistance to VA employees pursuing grievances against the department, the department said in a new policy announced Friday. The changes will bring VA in line with the requirements of Trump’s orders.
The unions must vacate their office space or begin paying rent by Jan. 31, 2020. They must tell VA of their decision by Jan. 10. The department will inform the unions next month of what their rental costs would be to remain in the facilities. Unions currently maintain office space at agency facilities across the country at no cost to the organizations.
The new policies follow the reinstatement of three executive orders Trump first issued in 2018 that sought to rein in the use of official time across government, as well as other steps to limit their influence and power. The orders were blocked by a federal judge in May of last year, but an appeals court overturned that decision this summer. Last month, the Office of Personnel Management gave agencies the go ahead to move forward with the orders and offered guidance for their implementation.
VA previously said implementing the orders could lead to the repurposing of hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space and spending the $49 million it paid employees on official time on other priorities such as suicide prevention.
“Common sense dictates that VA employees’ main focus should be providing veterans the best possible care, benefits and customer service,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said on Friday. “At the same time, unions using VA facilities should have to pay their fair share. These executive orders will help ensure that’s the case.”
In addition to the official time changes, Trump’s executive orders will shorten the length of performance improvement plans to 30 days, exempt adverse personnel actions from grievance proceedings and streamline collective bargaining negotiations. The appeals court in September vacated a previous ruling that struck down many elements of the orders, concluding the unions must take their fight to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
OPM’s guidance instructed agencies to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements at the “earliest date permitted by law” and to consult with their legal offices about putting in place provisions of the orders that conflict with existing contracts. Agency Director Dale Cabaniss said last month further guidance is forthcoming, but in the meantime agencies “should immediately review the EOs to ensure that they are fully compliant with all requirements or are taking steps to become compliant with requirements at the soonest feasible opportunity.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most VA employees, has warned that the provisions of its previous contract remain in effect and any effort to unwind them without further negotiation would be met with a legal challenge. VA previously said it would bargain with AFGE over the changes if the union made such a request.
Alma Lee, president of AFGE's National VA council, said the union will call for negotiations and asked members to begin preserving all records in case they are eventually denied access to their offices.
“This is a punitive and illegal action that’s intended to silence employees and discourage them from reporting mismanagement or other abuses that harm veterans’ care,” Lee said. “We will pursue any and all legal options at the national and local levels to challenge this illegal activity and preserve employees’ collective bargaining rights.”