The Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees reached a settlement late July 20 that effectively wiped the slate clean of the last four years of labor relations while the parties work to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Former President Donald Trump signed three executive orders in May 2018 instructing agencies to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employee unions and requiring drastic cuts to so-called official time — the work hours that employee representatives use to conduct union work, such as helping fellow employees with complaints or conducting contract negotiations.
The VA was one of the more aggressive agencies in implementing those executive orders, requiring its unions to vacate agency office space by December 2019. The agency proposed the elimination of 42 articles of the collective bargaining agreement and 99 percent of official time use for AFGE, the largest federal union that represents about two-thirds of VA employees.
The executive orders and contract proposal kicked off a series of lawsuits and unfair labor practice filings that have now been revoked or put on hold under the new settlement.
“For four years, our members fought back against the illegal, anti-worker policies implemented by the previous administration,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley in a news release.
The settlement “reset the relationship between VA management and employees so that we can once again work together in good faith to make the VA a great place for employees to work and the recognized leader in veteran care. This settlement agreement sets a new standard for what labor-management relations in the federal government should look like. Now is the time for other agencies to follow suit.”
President Joe Biden revoked Trump’s union executive orders just days into the start of his presidency, but changes have taken time to trickle down to agency policy, particularly with some Biden officials who had to await confirmation by the Senate.
Biden’s executive order “didn’t remedy the harm caused by those executive orders, specifically the VA’s implementation of those executive orders. So it didn’t address the current state of affairs for contract negotiations, it didn’t address the administrative determinations that had been made by the former VA leaders in regard to Title 38 official time, and it didn’t remedy claims under those executive orders,” AFGE attorney Thomas Dargon told Federal Times.
This new settlement comes after VA and AFGE leadership held high-level discussions throughout this year on how to handle the collective bargaining situation at the agency.
“More than 79% of VA’s workforce are bargaining unit employees, and we are working to cultivate strong, lasting relationships with the unions that represent the population of the department’s union workers, so as to ensure world class service to Veterans,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said.
In addition to resetting union-VA relations to the contract signed in 2011, the settlement sets up parameters for the two to keep a majority of that contract and negotiate over just 12 articles when creating the new contract: discipline and adverse action; merit promotion; performance appraisals; local supplements; mid-term bargaining; official time; details and temporary promotions; employee rewards and recognition; investigations; safety, health and environment; upward mobility; and technology for administering, tracking and measuring Veterans Benefit Administration work.
The settlement also provides avenues for union representatives to receive compensation for work done while under Trump administration policies: Employees who took time off or worked outside normal hours to perform union duties will receive pay for that time, and six suspensions, one counseling and one admonishment based on union behavior will be expunged from those employees’ records.
All representatives who file verified claims for time performing union work with AFGE’s electronic claims system will receive a flat 66 hours of basic pay, and those employees who believe they worked more time than that can apply for additional compensation with supporting documentation.
Union locals will also be able to file for compensation for office space and supplies expenses that they incurred after being kicked out of VA offices.
The settlement restores official time limits to those laid out before the Trump executive orders, and Title 38 employees — physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, chiropractors, nurses, nurse anesthetists, physician assistants and expanded-function dental auxiliaries — will once again be able to use official time.
“I hope that it serves as a roadmap for other agencies and other unions,” said Dargon. “It’s been a difficult four years for federal workers, and VA workers specifically working through the COVID-19 pandemic on the front lines, and this gives the union a seat back at the bargaining table that it deserves.”
And though the VA’s settlement with AFGE is remarkable in its scope, resetting relationships with employee unions at other agencies may take many different forms, depending on the size of the agency and how much or little they pursued the changes called for under Trump’s executive orders.
The agency and union will have a minimum of 48 weeks to conduct negotiations for the new contract, per the settlement.