House lawmakers to investigate VA’s struggles to keep track of official time

Cindy Barnes, director of education, workforce and income security issues, GAO

The Veterans Affairs Department has no idea how much time its employees spend on official union business, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Union leaders are allowed to handle union business, such as negotiations or handling grievances, during their normal work hours; this is known as “official time.” It’s protected by law: the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute.

But each agency has different standards for how much official time is acceptable, which is negotiated with their respective union, and how that time is measured.

“At the VA, they allow their employees and their facilities to track it in various ways, such as using estimates, using surveys, using actual records,” Cindy Barnes, director of education, workforce and income security issues at GAO, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “What we found was that the information that they were providing governmentwide was not reliable.”

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GAO couldn’t determine how many hours of official time VA employees had used for a number of reasons. First, VA uses two separate systems to track official time: its time and attendance system, and annual data calls as part of VA’s Office of Labor-Management Relations’ system. The LMR system also is supplemented with surveys, estimates and other data.

Another issue GAO found is that VA does not adequately train its employees on how to track official time, or how to enter that information into its system.

Barnes said GAO investigated this issue at the behest of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which will be holding a joint hearing with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 16 on the subject of official time. Scheduled to testify are J. David  Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Kim McLeod, VA’s acting executive director of Labor-Management Relations, Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Mary Crenshaw, GAO’s assistant director, for education, workforce and income security.

The committee said annual reporting of official time is not required by the Office of Personnel Management. But OPM can request agencies to disclose how much time is spent on union activities during working hours. OPM hasn’t released a governmentwide report on official time since 2014 when it provided data for 2012. In that report, OPM says employee totals were about 3.43 million hours of official time  with cost estimates at $157 million.

Lawmakers’ interest in how much the government is spending on official time is an annual occurrence with House and Senate members routinely asking for details from OPM. Last February, Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the oversight committee, and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) wrote to 26 agency leaders asking for information how about how much work is done on official time at each agency.

Like many agencies, VA continues to struggle with specifics. Barnes said GAO’s rough estimate is that more than 1 million hours of official time were logged at VA last year, but there’s no way to confirm the accuracy of that number.

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Each agency also has a limit as to how much official time can occur within a year, which is also negotiated between the agency and the union. But VA has a problem there too.

“We don’t know what the actual limit is, and we don’t have any confidence in the numbers that they have provided,” Barnes said.

GAO had three recommendations for VA in its report:

  1. Increase efforts to ensure timekeepers at all facilities receive training and consistent guidance on recording official time in [VA Time and Attendance System].
  2. Standardize the methods used by facilities for determining the amount of official time used prior to the agency-wide implementation of VATAS by encouraging facilities to rely on time and attendance records when calculating the amount of official time used at the facility level.
  3. In preparation for the full implementation of VATAS, take steps to transition from using the LMR system to VATAS to collect and compile information on the amount of official time used agencywide.

“As VA rolls out this new system, we just want to make sure they have a smooth transition and they ensure, or at least collect complete information on the amount of official time used agencywide,” Barnes said. “VA told us that they’ve committed to providing training, to standardizing their processes and system, and they’re working on our recommendations.”.