Crisis negotiations: How coronavirus brought collective bargaining at the VA to a head

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Collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees have stalled for over a year, and the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down parts of the country and increased the workload and danger for medical professionals has only heightened disagreements between agency leadership and unions about how best to manage the federal workforce.

VA leadership and AFGE entered into negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in May 2019, but the agency declared an impasse twice in October and December of that year. On Dec. 19, 2019, the VA called on the Federal Services Impasse Panel to intervene, a state of affairs that has since been ongoing.

AFGE filed with FSIP June 3, arguing that the Department of Veterans Affairs had proposed significant changes to their collective bargaining agreement with the union, then refused to bargain in good faith with AFGE representatives over counter proposals that were substantially similar to those in the current agreement.

Some of the bargaining positions the VA established stem from requirements set down by three executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in May 2018: cut official time for union representatives, remove union representatives from agency office spaces and renegotiate collective bargaining agreements to fit such priorities.

The Trump administration has argued that official time — a practice that allows union representatives to perform certain tasks while on the clock at their agencies —wastes taxpayer funds and effectively pays federal employees to not work.

But federal employee groups and some members of Congress have argued that official time ultimately saves the government money and increases operations, by allowing union representation to bring issues to the attention of agency leadership and to resolve disputes informally without needing to involve attorneys or official proceedings.

“It saved everybody time and money that would be wasted on both sides,” Rick Weidman, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, told Federal Times.

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But some VA bargaining positions do not stem directly from Trump administration directives, though they have been employed at collective bargaining negotiations across several agencies.

“While the executive orders were designed to hurt the unions, and they do, I am most concerned with how the department wants to play favorites with awards, revoke telework on a whim, deny people leave for bereavement and make VA a miserable place to work. There is no predictability and you are subject to the attitudes of your supervisor. The VA can’t fulfill its mission when people don’t want to work here,” AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council President Alma Lee told Federal Times.

At issue among the agency’s proposals are clauses that would allow managers to have unilateral discretion to make changes to telework policies and would require the union to pay all arbitration expenses while keeping AFGE from choosing its own bargaining representatives, according to the AFGE filing.

The telework clauses gain heightened relevance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Office of Personnel Management has highlighted working from home as an essential tool for keeping employees safe and eliminating the spread of the virus.

Though many front-line workers at the VA cannot telework, AFGE argued in its filing that the agency’s failure “to take steps to allow employee telework,” resulted in some employees whose work could have been performed from home to be forced to go into the office, because the agency did not have the support structures in place to enable remote work.

The coronavirus has also compounded concerns about health-care worker safety at the VA, with the slow rollout of coronavirus testing for VA employees coming under most recent scrutiny at June 3 hearing.

“The VA left us out of having any input on its response to the pandemic. I think their refusal to do that — to engage with the representatives of the employees on the front lines — contributed to their failure,” said Lee.

“Front-line employees are concerned about their safety. They want to trust that the VA cares about keeping them safe — and that was for the closing and the pending reopening. They also want to trust that the VA is telling the truth. Unfortunately, they can’t depend on safety or truth right now.”

According to Yvonne Evans, recording secretary of AFGE Local 933, and a registered nurse at John Dingell VA Medical Center, some hospitals have actually done well at adding to their medical supply stockpiles once it was evident that there was not enough to deal with the crisis and at reassigning staff to make sure that they have enough personnel. But the agency has fallen behind in communicating with staff and opposed requested changes like the addition of hazard pay for medical staff.

“It’s like being in a battle, and you’re right there on the front lines with coronavirus. And they don’t think that deserves hazardous pay?” said Evans, adding that it has felt like VA leadership has been even more reluctant to negotiate since the onset of the pandemic. “So they’re not allowing us to even negotiate, they don’t want to negotiate, they don’t think that we need it.”

Evans tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March, which she believes she caught while working in the VA hospital. She said that she has not been told to report to Employee Health upon her return to work, has not been told to fill out paperwork establishing that she has tested negative for the virus and has not been made aware of the plan for reopening VA centers.

“When I go back to work, I’m going back into the same environment I was when I left. This time, I’m weaker than I was when I was in there before. I’ve developed scarring in my lungs because of the virus,” said Evans.

“If I catch something, I can give it to the patient. It’s not just the employees I’m looking [out] for. As a nurse of 30 years, I’m looking for the patients as well.”

According to Weidman, union communication is essential to ensure the health and safety of the veterans they serve, as AFGE has frequently notified his organization of problems or changes in the system that impact the veterans they represent:

“It’s all bound up together. They want to erode veterans rights and they want to erode employee rights. And all of that results in more unfair care, more unfair decisions when it comes to benefits and poorer care when it comes to health care.”

But a VA spokesperson told Federal Times that the changes they wish to implement are designed to improve care: “Whether through its condemnation of the MISSION Act or its efforts to repeal the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for Veterans and their families. It’s no surprise that AFGE has taken the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement. VA’s collective bargaining proposals are designed to ensure Veterans come first in all that we do, and we look forward to working with AFGE to achieve that goal.”

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Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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