Representatives for hundreds of thousand of workers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are chipping away at 12 articles subject to bargaining, as talks over a new contract that were delayed at the start of the Biden administration pick up steam.

The articles touch on protections from employee disciplinary action and separation, the allocation of awards and the elimination of supplemental agreements for local unions. The American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council so far discussed four articles, two of which are in contention: discipline and awards.

Members of the council have been working toward a new contract, the first in over a decade, at the VA. After President Joe Biden brought new leadership to the agency, including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, negotiations with union members have picked up since March.

“We’re bargaining two weeks per month,” Thomas Dargon, AFGE’s supervisory attorney, said in an interview. “The last two-week session we had, we spent entirely on awards. Every day, all day, awards.”

The article lays out how VA employees are given awards or incentives based on their service. Dargon said there has been inconsistency and disparity in the way awards have been calculated and distributed in recent years, especially during the pandemic.

“We’ve received tons of complaints from employees in the field about how that was done unfairly or inconsistently, and we want to strengthen our awards article to make sure that’s not the case,” he said. “People who are delivering excellent care to veterans deserve to be considered for awards just like their peers.”

Also on the table are separation protections. Dargon said the discipline article was the subject of successful grievance filings over the last few years.

“They’re not giving employees more due process,” he said.

The council has filed a grievance over a complaint against the VA alleging bad-faith bargaining, according to a statement from AFGE NVAC.

The Trump administration “significantly delayed the contract negotiation process with bad-faith bargaining and by prohibiting VA medical and health care providers from using official time to enforce the collective bargaining agreement and represent their coworkers,” said an email statement from the NVAC, adding that this resulted in federal lawsuits by AFGE and other VA labor unions.

Under Trump, the VA took the position that it didn’t have to provide Performance Improvement Plans to employees before firing them under the VA Accountability Act. Dargon said his team fielded a grievance and won that case, but the VA under the Biden administration is maintaining that it does not have to provide the plans.

“The Department’s current proposals reflect a commitment to balancing employee rights with the needs of Veterans when taking performance based actions,” a VA spokesperson said in an email on June 14.

The previous contract was signed in March 2011, and the union agreed to renegotiate 12 of 67 articles. The old contract will remain in effect until a new one is secured.

Each side from the VA and NVAC “selected six articles to reopen and renegotiate from the 2011 Master Agreement,” according to the AFGE website. “That means 55 other articles from the 2011 Master Agreement will be “rolled over” in the next contract, plus the Preamble and Duration of Agreement provisions.”

Dargon said negotiations will resume on June 28 for the fifth two-week session.

Federal Times previously reported in February that a White House Task Force issued a report outlining about 70 recommendations for promoting worker organizing and collective bargaining for both federal and private-sector employees.

The NVAC is the largest bargaining unit in the VA, covering 283,000 workers and making up about 40% of the total represented by AFGE.

The agency employs more than 410,000 people at hundreds of medical facilities, clinics, benefits offices and cemeteries.

AFGE is the largest federal employee union, representing 700,000 workers from most government agencies. Its net gain in May was 436 workers, the largest since October 2018. Members work in a variety of occupations, including health care, law enforcement, research, mechanics and corrections, among others.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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