GOP senators question VA workers’ government salaries for union duties

Two Republican senators announced in a Wednesday press release that they sent a letter to the Veterans Affairs secretary demanding to know why 188 VA employees are being paid to work full-time on union work, known as working “official time,” while the veterans claims backlog continues to mount.

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GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Tom Coburn, M.D., of Oklahoma sent the joint letter to Eric K. Shinseki demanding answers to some very specific questions in light of “White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s comments [Tuesday] stating that the President is “deadly serious” about ending the claims backlog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” according to the press release issued by Portman’s office.

“Of the 257 employees the VA had serving in 100 percent official time capacity since January 2012, 188 of them were to be fulfilling roles in direct support of veterans, such as health care and security,” the press release continued. Iy went on to note that the VA presently has a 25,372 claim backlog.

The 188 employees performing union work full-time include 85 nurses, six police officers, plus pharmacists, medical specialists, social workers, medical technicians as well as psychologists, therapists “as well as other health specialists and health support staff,” according to the letter. It notes that many of these employees are earning six-figure salaries while performing union duties.

The senators question the wisdom of paying taxpayer funds to employees to perform strictly union duties, especially during a time when government is supposed to be engaging in austerity measures.

“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.”

Their questions are:

1) How many VA employees work official time 100% of the time?  Please provide figures over the last ten years– as well as any comments or context you might have as to why the numbers have fluctuated.  Please also include the employees’ title, salary, and duty station.

2) Please describe and provide the job descriptions of what these employees do in a given day for the VA.  How do these activities relate to the mission of the VA?

3) If an employee is on official time 100% of the time, does the VA have to hire and compensate another employee to perform the duties the person would otherwise perform in their position of record? If so, how much did this cost the VA last year?

4) What is the process for putting a VA employee on official time 100% of the time? Does such an employee go through competitive hiring practices as do other federal employees?

5) How does your agency evaluate such employees for performance? Are employees who spend 100% of their time on official time eligible for pay raises? If so, please provide the amount of annual increases (including step increases, bonuses, incentive payments, awards, or other money in addition to base salary), broken down by year over the last 10 years, given to employees on official time. Please also explain the process for determining pay raises for employees on 100% official time.

6) If an employee is on 100% official time, is this employee expected to report to his or her work station on a daily basis?  How many of these employees work at VA facilities and how many do not? Can employees on official time work from home? If so, please report the number of hours employees on official time worked from home or away from their primary duty station.

7) Of the employees who are on 100% official time, do any of their positions of record reflect positions the VA is currently seeking to fill, “hard to fill” positions, or positions which the VA has a critical need to fill? Could this result in any service disruptions to veterans?

8) Has the VA agreed to any current collective bargaining agreements that include language on official time? If so, what did the VA agree to? Who approved these provisions?

9) Have any members of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals been on 100% official time over the past 10 years? If so, how many?

10) Have any personnel assigned to processing disability claims been on 100% official time over the past 10 years?  If so, how many?  How might official time affect VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog?

Sens. Portman and Coburn aren’t the only ones who would like some answers — so would the taxpayers paying the salaries of these 188.


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