If your voice held no power, they wouldn’t try to silence you.
A critical voice like Dr. Michelle Washington’s or AFGE Local 2028 President Kathleen Dahl’s was so powerful the status quo wanted to shut it down. Without their courage, more veterans would have died from a severe shortage of mental healthcare providers and the Legionnaires outbreak that VA employees exposed. They spoke out, and their union, AFGE, stood behind them and fought for their right to do their jobs serving veterans.
But that’s about to change if certain members of Congress get their way. Our whistleblowers and other frontline employees may not get the protection they need when they try to do their jobs, and the American people, including veterans, will suffer.
Punishing Whistleblowers, Busting Unions
It’s been several years in a row since politicians like Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia have undermined public servants and the services they provide to the American people. Cuts to agency budgets and public services, pay freezes, cuts to retirement benefits, unpaid furloughs, and a government shutdown are just a few examples of what they have done and what they will do. Earlier this month, they came up with another way to do it.
Hice has a long record of being anti-federal employee. In fact, he’s one of members of Congress who have the worst record on federal employee issues. So it was not a surprise when he introduced a bill and tried to push it through a House panel.
His bill, the Official Time Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 1364), drew criticism from many of his colleagues at a congressional hearing on March 8. His colleagues apparently knew what Hice was getting at: workplace protections for whistleblowers, other frontline employees and their unions.
So, what would this bill do?
This Bill Will Punish Whistleblowers and Hurt all Workers' Ability to be Represented:
1. It would severely restrict your workplace rights.
Say if you report a fraud and your manager retaliates against you, your union reps won’t be able to fully protect you because the bill would unreasonably cap how much time they can spend per day on representational work.
The time union reps use to represent their coworkers is known as official time, as in official agency business. Union reps usually work on several cases at the same time, and management agrees on how much time can be used for this agency business. This legislation would no longer allow management to determine the appropriate amount of time but rather set an arbitrary cap without taking into consideration individual agency working conditions or needs.
"Official Time" is shorthand for “official agency duty time” because the 1978 law that gave employees the right to have a voice in the workplace envisioned that the employees who join a union would need fellow employees who are meeting with management to resolve employee concerns should be on regular duty time as they were fixing agency problems.
The employee representatives are never off doing union work or union time. They are doing agency work resolving employee concerns—that's why it is called “Official Time.” Without it, the original lawmakers who passed the law 40 years ago knew that employee concerns would never get addressed properly if employees had to go off the clock to meet with management about agency business.
Without the official agency duty time—employees would face severe obstacles in getting their problems resolved, and service to the mission would be damaged by ineffective systems, lack of training, or proper tools and low morale.
It would also create a culture of fear and intimidation in the workplace with no hope for an effective defense. Without official time, federal employees will not have a safe place to report issues involving workplace safety or discrimination, as well as instances of waste, fraud or abuse without fear of reprisal. The ability to recommend workplace improvements could vanish if this bill becomes law.
2. It would financially penalize union reps who volunteer to help their coworkers.
Your union reps would be penalized financially if they want to do the right thing and give their all.
The bill would cut their retirement for any time spent on representational work above the arbitrary cap, forcing union reps to choose between volunteering as a rep to protect workers’ rights and improve agency efficiency or keeping their retirement. What Hice is trying to do is discourage people from becoming union reps to help their coworkers. When there is no one to protect your rights, you might as well lose those rights. Busting the union and gutting employee protections are Hice’s goal.
Hice's Colleagues: Your Bill Doesn't Make Sense
While Hice insisted several times during the hearing that his bill wouldn’t take away official time, several members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform didn’t buy it, and rightly so.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said if there’s an arbitrary cap on the hours union reps can spend on cases, “it will have an effect.”
“Congress values collective bargaining rights,” Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts reminded Hice. Lynch used to be a union shop steward and knows exactly how capping official time will hurt the employees the union is serving. Coupled with cutting union reps’ retirement, employees will end up having no voice.
“That’s the system that you would like to see,” he told Hice.
Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said people misunderstood the use of official time by union reps. Official time is not used for union-specific business like recruiting members or holding internal union meetings. Official time is used to resolve disputes in the workplace, negotiate contracts, improve workplace safety, promote productivity, and generally makes the government run better.
As a former Orlando police chief, Rep. Val Demings of Florida can attest to that. Demmings told her colleagues official time was critical to the police department and improved its overall safety.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said the critique of the use of official time at the Department of Veterans Affairs was misplaced. The VA employs more than 300,000 employees to take care of new and old veterans. But less than 0.1 percent of those employees use official time full time to help make the agency more effective.
Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania agreed.
“Let’s think about the beneficiary of official time at the VA. Let’s look a little further beneath the surface,” he said.
Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri said, “I don’t understand the intent of the bill…We’re going to cripple the government. I don’t think that’s what we’re sent here to do.”
Some good government groups are not a fan of Hice's bill either.
“The use of official time by union representatives continues to play a significant role in advancing the rights and interests of all workers in the workplace and making the federal government more efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs of its employees,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement. “But this legislation would ruthlessly strip away this critical tool, to the detriment of all workers, particularly women and people of color.”
The bill passed the committee March 10 despite common sense arguments against it. However, it will have to pass both the House and Senate to become law.