The Department of Veterans Affairs is cutting off some support for its staff's unions next year - ending pay union representatives receive while pursuing grievances on behalf of bargaining unit employees and requiring unions to pay rent to use VA office space and equipment, the department said in a statement Friday.
These changes are the result of three executive orders President Donald Trump signed in May 2018 to cut how much money the federal government compensates unions and its representatives.
"Common sense dictates that VA employees' main focus should be providing Veterans the best possible care, benefits and customer service. At the same time, unions using VA facilities should have to pay their fair share," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.
But the VA staff's union, American Federation of Government Employees, said the new provisions are meant to distract employees during an ongoing negotiation.
"This is a punitive and illegal action that's intended to silence employees and discourage them from reporting mismanagement or other abuses that harm veterans' care," Alma Lee, AFGE National VA Council president, said in a news release. "We will pursue any and all legal options at the national and local levels to challenge this illegal activity and preserve employees' collective bargaining rights."
Even though a federal court has lifted an injunction relating to the president's orders, the administration cannot implement these provisions until it has first negotiated the changes with labor unions, the AFGE release said.
VA union representatives will now have to spend at least 75 percent of their paid time doing VA business or necessary training as allowed by law. The VA will not pay for union representatives to perform non-agency business, like arbitration or lobbying activities.
In the press release, the VA reported in fiscal year 2016 the department spent more than $49 million on employee compensation for them to work more than a "million duty hours on taxpayer-funded union time."
The VA has requested $220.2 billion for its fiscal year 2020 budget, which is 9.6 percent more than it had the year before.
The VA also reported the AFGE takes up thousands of square feet in office spaces throughout the VA. For example, it said in the press release, Lee and the rest of the union are using more than 7,500 square feet of space the Salem VA Medical Center.
Union leaders will receive bills for all union-occupied spaces starting Dec. 13, and have until Jan. 10 to decide if they will vacate or rent the current space. If they decide to leave, they will have until Jan. 31 to remove union possessions and return government-furnished equipment.
In the meantime, AFGE is telling its local unions to preserve records, personnel files, and other important documents in case they are denied access to union offices.
-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.