(WASHINGTON) - A back pay award issued more than one year ago for $2.1 million has yet to be paid to nurse practitioners and physician assistants employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs´ Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, even though the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) rejected the agency´s appeal. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2109 filed a grievance on behalf of these employees, who provide direct care to veterans in the Medical Specialty Clinic, after employees reported undue pressure from management not to claim overtime.
AFGE Legal Rights Attorney Joseph Ybarra brought this case to arbitration because overtime rates were not properly paid to employees required to work beyond their scheduled duty hours. The FLRA upheld the arbitrator´s finding that these employees were entitled to overtime. The VA unsuccessfully argued that overtime rules do not apply to VA health care employees because they are covered by Title 38 personnel rules, instead of Title 5 which covers most federal employees. In addition, the arbitrator found that high level management officials, including the chief of staff and the associate director of nursing, acted with "anti-union animus" and engaged in acts of retaliation and reprisal against employees who tried to claim their overtime hours, going so far as to conduct unlawful surveillance of union officer activities. The FLRA also affirmed the arbitrator´s findings of retaliation and reprisal. Throughout his decision, the arbitrator also noted that both parties agree there is a serious issue of understaffing of critical health care employees.
"We believe more than enough time has passed for the agency to comply with the decision of the arbitrator and the FLRA. It has become clear to us that the VA is intentionally dragging its feet because it believes that it is above the law," said AFGE Local 2109 Executive Vice President Virgie Hardeman.
"In a desperate move last October, the VA said it plans to invoke a `7422´ exception to bargaining to attempt to overturn this back pay award," said AFGE National Secretary-Treasurer J. David Cox. "Through pending legislation AFGE has been fighting to eliminate this provision and it is a shame that the agency would abuse the 7422 loophole just to avoid paying these dedicated health care professionals what they are due."
"The arbitrator finding that management `trampled´ on the rights of employees who sought relief through their union representatives is deeply troubling," said National VA Council President Alma Lee. "Furthermore, the VA´s continued use of Section 7422 of Title 38 to challenge the jurisdiction of the FLRA and arbitrators is undermining the basic rights and workplace morale of its front-line health care professionals."
Despite numerous written requests, AFGE Local 2109 still has not received a response from the agency on the status of the February 2011 award.