Policy: Labor

Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Hundreds of VA employees working for union on taxpayers' dime

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Opinion,Diana Furchtgott Roth,Columnists,Labor unions,Labor,Veterans Affairs

Most people show up at work to do a job, but 250 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs are paid full-time not to work for the taxpayer. They are on "official time" and they work for their unions.

Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wrote in a June 5 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that "a number of VA employees are paid government salaries, funded entirely by taxpayers, to perform work totally unrelated to their formal governmental duties."

The Office of Personnel Management defines official time as "paid time off from assigned government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees."

At the Baltimore VA Medical Center, where the wait to process veterans' claims is the longest in America, six federal workers are on full-time official time.

Evelyn Cipriaso and Joyce Flayhan, both nurses, make $96,805 and $84,698, respectively, not to care for veterans, but to work for the National Association of Government Employees.

OPM reported that in 2011 Uncle Sam paid more than $156 million for official time for federal Civil Service employees, up from $139 million in 2010.

The VA had 998,483 hours of official time in 2011, up 23 percent from 2010, at a cost of $42.5 million. The hours-per-employee rate was 4.02, compared with a governmentwide average of 2.82.

Americans for Limited Government, a conservative nonprofit, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with each agency to get numbers of workers on full-time official time -- figures not published by OPM.

A complete list of full-time VA employees in 2012 shows that salaries of the 258 workers ranged from $26,420 to $131,849, with an average of $61,121. Seventeen of them had six-figure salaries.

Government workers on full-time official time have office space in the particular agency to which they are assigned, and are paid for full-time work by the taxpayers, including fringe benefits such as pension plans and medical insurance that many private-sector workers no longer receive. But many are not required to show up at the office.

As well as working for NAGE, VA employees on official time represent unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union.

» Bethany McIvor, a nurse in Massachusetts, was paid $120,395 by taxpayers to work for the AFGE.

» Janice Perry, a pharmacist in Martinsburg, WV, was paid $126,571 to work for the NFFE.

» Joseph Simon, representing the SEIU, was paid $120,544 not to work as a pharmacist at the VA hospital in Jackson, Miss.

Contributions from unions flow into politics, the vast majority to Democrats. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, the SEIU, described by the Center for Responsive Politics as a "heavy hitter," spent $16.9 million on contributions to candidates, almost all Democrats, and $23 million on outside spending.

VA employees spent 77 percent of their 2012 official-time hours on "general labor-management relations," in part because in December 2009 President Obama expanded labor-management forums in the federal government. A small fraction is spent resolving disputes or negotiating contracts.

Maybe Congress will act. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., has a bill to limit official time that has 21 co-sponsors. Gingrey introduced similar legislation in the 111th and 112th Congresses. The Senate version sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would completely eliminate official time.

Bronze Star recipient Robert Fearing, who waited more than two years for benefits, told the Baltimore Sun earlier this year, "I have gone through war fighting the enemy and now I need to fight my own government for the benefits I deserve."

We need all VA employees working to shrink the wait.

Washington Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth (dfr@manhattan-institute.org), former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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