AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. testified before Congress on the vital union protection known as 'official time' on Feb. 16. Official time is used by union representatives to help improve government operations and address workplace issues such as discrimination and retaliation.
It's a process that's been in place for decades and has proven time and again that it helps make the government more efficient. Even managers and the Government Accountability Office, the government's accountability watchdog, agree that the use of official time by union reps does benefit the government.
Some lawmakers on the panel just plain got it wrong – and then made outlandish claims about official time. For the men and women who use official time to better serve our veterans and protect whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the hearing was at times like nails on a chalkboard.
What They Got Wrong
1. Union activities
The lawmakers appeared to confuse "union activities" with "representational duties required by law." Union reps are NOT allowed to use official time to conduct union-specific business, such as soliciting members, holding internal union meetings, electing union officers or engaging in partisan political activities.
They are allowed to use official time only to perform representational activities such as representing employees in grievances and disciplinary actions, setting procedures that protect employees from on-the-job injuries, negotiating a contract to improve working conditions, and enforcing protections from unlawful discrimination.
2. Quality of care
The lawmakers wrongly assumed official doesn't' benefit veterans. Official time definitely helps improve the quality of care for veterans. AFGE officials, for example, successfully used official time to defend a psychologist who faced retaliation after blowing the whistle on a shortage of doctors to care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her disclosure led to a hiring of 1,600 mental health care professionals.
AFGE officials also used official time to blow the whistle on the legionnaires outbreak, protecting both veterans and employees from the disease that had killed at least five veterans. AFGE officials use official time to identify health and safety hazards at VA hospitals and train employees on the proper use of equipment and other health and safety issues. They use official time to voice and investigate concerns about patient safety without fear of retaliation from management.
Official time is used to help recruit and retain physicians, nurses, and other occupations facing national shortages. When employees have a voice at work and have the tools they need to do their jobs, they tend to stay.
3. Benefits to the taxpayers
Official times saves the government and taxpayers money. Union reps use official time to help resolve workplace conflicts before they escalate into legal fights that are both time-consuming and expensive.
Good working conditions and fair treatment help retain talent so the government won’t have to spend time and money replacing and training people all the time. In all parts of the VA, official time is used to reduce costly turnover especially among recent veteran hires who benefit from union support to have their back when training inadequate or medical leave issues cause friction.
Health and safety inspections union reps help conduct also prevent on-the-job injuries. Without proper health and safety measures in place, employees will get injured, and the taxpayers will foot the bill for it.
4. Claims backlog
The VA currently has about 100,000 claims waiting to be processed, down from a whopping 600,000 in 2013. VA has been able to reduce the backlog in just four years and while official time is allowed. Official time doesn’t prevent the backlog from being reduced. On the contrary, union officials use official time to help the VA with smooth implementation of new IT systems to help process claims and let the agency go paperless and ensure effective fair use of overtime used to reduce backlog. Official time keeps employee morale high, thus preventing the VA from losing even more claims processors.
Official time is used to voice the need to hire more employees. The VA right now needs nearly 800 claims processors but has not been able to hire people due to the hiring freeze. Politicians’ anti-VA rhetoric has resulted in a 78% drop in applications.
The backlog will go down if the VA is allowed to hire people to process the claims and Congress stops bashing the VA.
5. The need for 100% official time
Some lawmakers claimed we shouldn’t have people on 100% official time. But many medical directors see it differently. They see the benefit of having only one person whom they can go to for various issues. Instead of having to go to four people, each with 25% official time, they can go to the one person at their own convenience without having to pull, say, a surgeon who’s performing surgery, out to discuss issues, which could be disruptive and harmful.
Each AFGE local decides who should be on official time. Having a medical expert on official time is not a bad thing – he or she understands what doctors need to serve veterans. It also helps with retention and training of doctors and other health care professionals.
And One More Clarification
"Veterans get quicker care at a private VA hospital."
Veterans actually wait 6.5 days from their preferred date to see a VA primary care doctor while non-VA patients wait 19.5 days.
Want to know more about official time? Click here.