On November 8, management at the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it was taking action against 430 Title 38 employees: nurses, doctors, and other medical staff, by removing their official time and thereby limiting their ability to perform union representational duties.
This action also devastates 100,000 VA health care workers’ rights to representation in the workplace.
Our union, which represents more than 250,000 workers at the VA, quickly filed a lawsuit along with National Federation of Federal Employees and the National Association of Government Employees in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia late Wednesday, hours before the orders were to be implemented at the VA. The lawsuit seeks to block these union-busting actions by the administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This year the president has launched several attacks against working people, with a heavy emphasis on targeting the women and men who have dedicated their lives to caring for our nation’s veterans,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr., a VA nurse for more than 20 years. “From his now-illegal Executive Orders in May, to the recent decision by the VA to remove Title 38 workers from official time – President Trump has made it clear he doesn’t want doctors, nurses, dentists, and many others to have a voice in the workplace. And he’ll go to extreme lengths to silence them and bust their union.”
The VA’s latest announcement that it was removing 430 Title 38 workers from official time defies Congress by circumventing the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that established official time as necessary for workers and taxpayers alike.
“This action is the latest overreach in their quest to bust unions and ensure that workers have no ability to blow the whistle or fight harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace,” Cox added.
Official time saves lives
Our union, which was the lead plaintiff in AFGE v. Trump, the successful lawsuit challenging the administration’s initial round of union-busting executive orders, has been locked in a battle with the administration for most of the year to protect the Congressionally-mandated official time granted to federal workers.
Without official time, we never would have known about the VA waitlist scandal in 2014. Kathleen Dahl wouldn’t have been able to blow the whistle on a Legionnaires’ outbreak at her VA that killed six veterans and sickened 16 others. Dr. Michelle Washington wouldn’t have been allowed to testify before Congress about a shortage of doctors to treat troops returning from war with PTSD. But thanks to official time, Dr. Washington and Ms. Dahl’s stories were heard and lives were saved.
“If the president and his administration get their way, workers will be intimidated into silence and our veterans will suffer,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee.
We will continue to protect our rights
Under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 there are already statutory limits on official time. Last year at the VA, only 0.539% of employees used some sort of official time, costing just one-tenth of 1% of all the salaries and benefits paid to federal employees.
“The administration would have you believe that there is some rampant misuse of official time, but they can’t cite when or how,” said Cox. “And in reality, silencing these workers and the tens of thousands they represent will do nothing to increase access to care or help close the gap in vacancies plaguing the VA.”
According to the VA, there are currently more than 40,000 vacancies at the Veterans Health Administration, with more than 24,000 in the medical and dental field. VA medical centers in Baltimore, Nashville, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles all have more than 400 vacancies at their facilities alone.
“When President Trump was elected he said he wanted to help veterans receive greater access to the care they’ve earned,” said Cox. “But, from the day he took office and instituted his foolish hiring freeze, vacancies and wait times at the VA have risen. And instead of addressing the inability to properly hire and staff VA medical centers across the country, the president continues to try to silence employees and take away their rights at work.”
“We don’t relish having to go to the courts every time the administration oversteps and tries to trample on our rights, but we’re not going to back down. We will fight to ensure every employee has a voice in the workplace, and we will not stop fighting until those rights are protected,” he added.