The crisis of delayed care through the Veterans Administration is triggering close examination of the federal bureaucracy and the competence of VA management, but some senators and other taxpayer advocates fear the influence of organized labor is also adding to the time veterans must wait for treatment or to have their claims processed.
The issue at hand is known as “official time.”
“Official time is the euphemism for government employees doing the business of their labor union rather than doing the work of the government. Different departments allow different amounts, but even an hour of your time shouldn’t be funded by tax dollars if they’re doing the work of the union. That’s what the union dues are supposed to pay for,” said Fred Wszolek of the Workforce Fairness Institute.
As early as June 2013, Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to express their concern that 257 VA employees working on “official time” were busy doing work for the unions rather than making life easier for veterans, as they are paid to do. A full 188 of those VA employees on 100 percent “official time” would typically be fulfilling roles in direct support of veterans in areas such as health care and security.
“Documents from your department list 188 VA employees serving in 100 percent official time capacity during the time period spanning January 1, 2012 through February 2013. During this time of sequestration and tight budgets, it is important to know how so many employees can be spared to serve the interest of outside groups, instead of carrying out jobs that are essential to the health, safety and transition of our nation’s veterans,” wrote the senators.
Portman and Coburn said at least 85 VA nurses, some with six-figure salaries, “were in 100 percent official time status” even while the VA sought “to fill open nursing positions.” Other VA personnel on 100 percent “official time” included four addiction specialists, nine pharmacists and pharmacist technicians, a rehabilitation specialist for the blind, five social workers, 11 health technicians, 12 medical support assistants, two psychologists and six police officers.
Wszolek believes it’s outrageous for taxpayers to be funding union labor for any length of time, but he said the problem is most likely worse than the unions will admit.
“We’re not even sure that they’re properly reporting all of the official time that they’re taking,” Wszolek said. “They might be putting down that they did three hours of union business, but really it was an entire day. So it’s tough to tell whether this is having a major effect throughout the major workforce. I would suspect that it is being under-reported and the value of the time that is being given away to the unions is probably dramatically higher than what we know.”
But Americans shouldn’t expect any of that to change. Wszolek said these workers have very little to fear, given their current job security.
“Many of these employees are also covered by civil service. So they have two levels of protection,” he said. “That may be why some of these VA employees were so ambivalent about the whole thing and were providing substandard care. They’re almost impossible to fire under civil service rules, and then they’ve got a union going to bat for them as well. So they kind of feel as though they can get away with anything.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Fred Wszolek:
So why would the federal government agree to federal employees holding virtually all of the cards? Wszolek said there's no one really advocating for the taxpayers.
"The unions, often times, control the government, so then they're kind of negotiating with themselves," he said. "They're negotiating with the people that got them elected, and so obviously they're getting a pretty good deal."
One VA union, The American Federation of Government Employees, or AFGE, blamed "understaffing and inadequate funding of frontline services" for long wait times at VA hospital unions.
"When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit," said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. in a statement Wednesday. "All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?"
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the VA Management Accountability Act by a vote of 390-33. It would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs more freedom to remove subordinates for incompetence or nonperformance. Wszolek said that's a good step, but he can't figure out why it was needed or why Shinseki was urging lawmakers to oppose the bill.
"You almost have to scratch your head and think about this, but why do we have to pass a special law to allow the senior managers of these departments to fire incompetent employees?" Wszolek asked. "Why isn't that the law? Why can't you get rid of anybody when they're doing something so crazy? The idea that the secretary opposes having that authority is mind boggling."
As for the the fate of official time, Wszolek said it's here to stay, at least in the current political environment.
"There's zero percent chance, as long as Harry Reid is the majority leader in the Senate, that we'll ever get rid of official time. His devotion to the unions is absolute. There has to be a change in power in that house of Congress," Wszolek said.
"It's a no-brainer. We are borrowing money from foreign countries to pay our bills. It's not like we've got spare money lying around. We should be having every single minute of a government employee's time focused on government's business, not the unions' business."