Federal Employees News Digest

VHA: Union rights bill advances

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is home to well over 350,000 civil service professionals available to serve the needs of the nation’s nearly 20 million veterans. And the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) unit of the department comprises most of these employees, implementing and providing healthcare services. 

A core component of VHA—the tens of thousands of VHA doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers—though unionized in name, are not allowed to collectively bargain even to the limited extent permitted most federal employees. 

This month, a bill that would change this unequal situation—the VA Employee Fairness Act of 2021—has cleared the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and could get a vote in the full House of Representatives.  

Why don’t VHA employees already have proper bargaining rights? Because instead of being hired under authority of U.S.C. Title 5, like most feds, these crucial personnel are hired and governed in the workplace under Title 38. This latter authority allows large exclusions—in practice, removing VHA healthcare workers in total—from having any bargainable employment issues open to them. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kenneth Warren, professor of political science and administrative law at Saint Louis University, told FEND. “Anything that brings management and labor together to discuss working conditions and so forth, that’s a good idea. Collective bargaining is a good idea. Voicing grievances, and having them heard and considered, is a good idea.”

“Most people would agree, usually, that passing this would be a good idea,” Warren continued. “That workers—healthcare employees, here—could discuss properly working conditions, at the very least. But we live in a crazy, politicized country right now—where even things that normally have made total common sense are being rejected.” 

“Of course, in the Senate there right now there is no room for error,” Warren added, when asked if it had any possibility of passage. He noted the scarcity of bipartisanship in Congress.  

The lack of forum for airing grievances—like collective bargaining—only worsened at VHA in recent years. In 2018, for example, former VA secretary Robert Wilkie actually cut already weak employee rights. He barred union use of “official time”—that is, the use of even a sliver of the agency’s overall work hours to handle employee grievances or other union business. 

Not surprisingly, then, unions and advocates have put their weight behind the bill. 

“The VA is a world-class health care provider, but because of [existing] law, it’s hard for the department to recruit and retain Title 38 medical professionals crucial to maintaining such a first-rate institution,” the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing more than 60,000 VHA employees, said in a statement. “These medical professionals, for example, are not allowed to raise grievances about things like staffing shortages that undermine patient care.”

“Or in situations where the VA fails to provide promotion and advancement opportunities that will attract health care workers to the VA,” AFGE continues. “They’re also not allowed to challenge management violations of pay laws or the VA’s own policies.” 

“Specifically, the bill would make the VA a better place to work by giving employees a say in their work and working conditions through collective bargaining,” AFGE concludes. 

Warren agreed with the union’s take, telling FEND that the bill would not only enhance fairness for employees, but also actually improve the functioning and efficiency—saving money—for federal entities. But, citing what he sees as growing political rifts in the U.S., Warren openly questioned the value of a the bill, long haul—especially if labor and management at the agency hit situations of “real deadlock” inflection points that workers often eventually come to, even federal employees.

“The bill doesn’t include the right to strike, does it?” Warren noted of the bill, and the overall law governing feds generally. Federal employees last hit a hard deadlock, Warren recalled, back in the early 1980s when federal air traffic controllers, under the aegis of their union, went on an illegal strike. The government broke the strike, replacing unionized workers. Warren is increasingly concerned, he told FEND, about federal courts rendering judgments that work against employee rights. 

Still, Warren circled back to his original statement about this legislation, with its promise of some collective bargaining: “For many problems, having the right to discuss grievances and have some form of collective bargaining is clearly a very good thing,” Warren said. 

AFGE’s observations on the current situation also reflect a sense of that value—some good effects the VA Employee Fairness Act could have at the agency, in the union’s view. 

“If enacted, it would give tens of thousands of VA employees including doctors and nurses full collective bargaining rights to negotiate for better working conditions and make the VA a better place to work,” the union said. 

The proposed legislation is H.R. 1948 in the House, with a companion bill S. 771 in the Senate.

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