September 18, 2023
AFGE is urging members of Congress not to repeat the same mistakes they made a few years ago.
Would you go to a hospital where nurses, physician assistants, and other healthcare providers are not properly trained on the treatment of your illness? How about a hospital where a housekeeper who’s a veteran and needs to take a day off to see his doctor but gets harassed by his manager for taking care of himself? Or a hospital where there are not enough providers to take care of you, making it difficult for you to schedule an appointment, or making you bypass care altogether?
You wouldn’t, right?
But that’s what a new proposal by Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas will do at all VA hospitals.
Arrington is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. He recently held a public hearing on his bill, H.R. 1461, which would take away an important tool VA employees use to correct unsafe, unfair working conditions. This tool is called official time, a practice where union volunteers are allowed certain hours of their workdays to deal with problems impacting employees and patient care.
But in his quest to weaken VA union employees at all costs, Arrington is pushing the bill through Congress. The House VA Committee will debate H.R. 1461 on May 17, and there's a good chance the committee will approve it and send it to the full House for a vote the following week.
An AFGE member from Minnesota was invited by her member of Congress to come to Washington to explain to Arrington why his bill is a terrible idea.
That AFGE member is Shirley Parker Blommel, a VA employee from St. Cloud VA Health Care System. Shirley, president of AFGE Local 390, has been given official time to help the VA serve veterans better. She also has a personal stake in all this as both her father and son are veterans, and she has firsthand experience how official time improves healthcare for our wounded warriors.
Shirley joined the VA as a licensed practical nurse in 2008. She started out in the nursing home, and then primary care and the residential rehabilitation treatment program. She had seen issues that affected patient care that wouldn’t have been fixed without her union’s involvement. So after one year as a nurse working on the floor, she signed up to be a union member. She began going to union meetings and learned she could make a difference. She worked in primary care until 2014 when she began working full time as a union volunteer.
The VA is a huge agency, serving 8.7 million veterans a year. An organization this big needs people like her to dedicate their time to making sure that veterans receive the care they need and that the employees have the tools to take care of them.
As a local officer, Shirley makes sure employees are getting proper training and their workplace is safe.
“Our members all want to provide the best care to veterans, but they cannot do this without adequate training and a safe working environment,” she told the lawmakers.
Two years ago when her hospital faced severe staffing shortages and management refused to hire enough providers, causing veterans to reach out to the media, her members of Congress came to her hospital and she worked with them to address the issue.
The housekeeper example mentioned above actually happened at her hospital.
At her hospital, a quarter of VA employees are veterans. ALL the housekeepers are combat veterans who play a critical role in patient safety by keeping operating rooms and other areas free of infection. Many of these housekeepers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they acquired in the military and need to see a doctor from time to time for treatment. But when they use their sick leave to take care of themselves, they get harassed by their managers for being low on sick leave, which they are fully entitled to under the law. They feel stigmatized and targeted.
The veterans come to the union for help, and Shirley explains their right to take sick leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and reaches out to management to smooth out tensions before things escalate.
Shirley is on 100% official time, meaning her full-time job is dealing with issues that affect patients and employees at her hospital. Some people may not understand how this works. But she doesn’t fault them; they have no idea how much work goes into delivering care for 37,000 veterans in her area by more than 1,600 employees.
Shirley didn’t start out working 100% official time. She was on 50% official time when she was her local’s vice president, but her managers frequently asked her to come in on her day off to take care of VA issues. Later, it became increasingly clear that it was not going to work with such a big workload.
St. Cloud Health Care System is huge. It operates a hospital and three outpatient clinics providing primary and specialty care, mental health care, surgical and specialty care, urgent care, acute psychiatric care, telemedicine, extended care and rehabilitation, imaging, laboratory and pharmacy services. The whole nine yards.
So when Shirley became president of her local, she was put on 100% official time. Her managers like her to be there when they call a meeting to discuss existing and new policies, new directives from the VA central office, resolve disagreements between employees, and mentor new employees. Her expertise as a nurse is a plus as she knows what the employees need to do their jobs. Her shop stewards are also given some hours of official time to attend trainings on health and safety and other matters that help improve the VA.
It’s disheartening that politicians don’t even try to understand all this.
“If H.R. 1461 were to become law, I would only have 25 percent official time,” Shirley said. “This would have an adverse impact on the veterans as well as the employees at St. Cloud. I need to time to address the many new directives that come down from the Veterans Health Administration. I would not have enough time to sit down and work things out with management and determine how to implement the new requirements.”
One new directive that recently came out was on the so-called Query State Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which directly affects how veterans are treated. Under this new directive, providers will have to start a query about other prescriptions for narcotics that have already been provided to the patient. The union has to work with management to determine which positions are best suited to assist with the queries. It also needs to make sure providers understand who else they can delegate this responsibility to ensure that overprescribing does not occur. The physician can delegate the responsibility to make the query to another employee, but the union wants to make sure it is a qualified employee since this is a serious matter.
With so many new requirements, providers need to fully understand what’s required of them as many directives are complex. By drafting H.R. 1461 the way he did, Arrington assumes she was not doing anything that contributes to patient care. Shirley’s father and son are veterans. She wouldn’t do what she does if she doesn’t think it helps the VA serve them better.
“I have no problem providing medical care to my veterans, but I also think that my duties as a union official are also very important for taking care of veterans,” she said.
“We’ve had managers appreciate having members on official time,” testified VA’s Kimberly Perkins McLeod, Acting Executive Director, Labor Management Relations.
She said Shirley’s managers know best how to deal with local issues and how official time should be allocated.
Yet many politicians still don’t get it, or pretend not to – after all, their goal is to bust unions. They falsely liken the government to business. Arrington said at the hearing, “There is no way someone would run their business or nonprofit the way the VA runs their business....I don't need any evidence." Here's what you can do:
Two bills that impact federal workers' workplace rights' are under consideration on Capitol Hill. If passed, they will effectively eliminate official time for all federal employees and cut retirement benefits for employee representatives. These bills will be voted on soon.
Please make sure you are not on government time or using government equipment (your work email or cell phone) when contacting your lawmaker.
Government and business exist for fundamentally different purposes. Business’s bottom-line is profit, which goes straight to the pockets of senior executives and shareholders. Government creates safe and thriving communities for us all. The VA is definitely not business and cannot be run as such. It’s a place for veterans to get the care they need. It’s their community. It’s their preferred employer. The VA is veterans’ lifeline.
“The 45,000 vacant positions pose a far, far greater impediment on veterans care [compared to a small amount of time used for OT],” said Rep. Mark Takano of California.
Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, who invited Shirley to testify, agreed. To him, the bill doesn’t make any sense. "Four people on 25% versus one on 100% of the time is the exact same thing," he said.
Shirley told lawmakers that labor-management relations are not about I’m right and they’re wrong but rather that we have different perspectives but a shared goal of wanting to improve care.
“My mission is to take care of our veterans and honor their sacrifice,” she said. “When the union and management work collaboratively, we can move toward the same positive outcome.”
Stop H.R. 1461 and other anti-veteran, anti-worker bills. Do not use government equipment or read during duty time.
AFGE is urging members of Congress not to repeat the same mistakes they made a few years ago.
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