The Veterans Affairs Department last week announced that it would move to implement President Biden’s executive order rescinding Trump-era workforce policies and aimed at restoring more collaborative labor-management relations.
Biden’s executive order, issued on Jan. 22, rescinded former President Trump’s trio of executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire federal workers and reducing the role of unions in federal workplaces. Those orders restricted the scope of topics that agencies could negotiate with unions over, shortened the timeframe of those negotiations, severely restricted union employees’ access to official time and cut unions off from using free agency office space and office supplies like computers and email services.
Following guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, Ophelia Vicks, acting executive director of the VA’s Office of Labor-Management Relations, sent the American Federation of Government Employees a letter outlining the steps the department is taking to unwind those Trump-era policies. The letter confirms that the department recognizes its 2011 contract with the union as the “current agreement in effect” and restores unions’ access to official time and office space as it was prior to Trump’s orders.
“VA will no longer charge rent for union office space,” Vicks wrote. “Local facilities shall coordinate with the unions to either restore the same space they had or provide comparable space if they have repurposed the union’s offices for patient care and other mission-related needs.”
Thomas Dargon, supervisory attorney with AFGE’s National VA Council, said the letter marks a “step in the right direction.” He highlighted the importance of granting union officials access to facilities so that employees can easily and quickly report issues as they come up.
“I think it’s important for employees to know that their representatives are on station, here to protect them and are accessible, and that they don’t have to make an appointment and drive down the road to a separate facility to get the union rights that they’re entitled to,” Dargon said. “Workplace issues come up very quickly in a hospital setting. If there’s an investigation or a complaint or a hearing, you need to get the same day or the next day, so having that presence on site definitely makes it easier for employees to get the representation they’re entitled to.”
But Dargon said there is still much that VA must do to restore employees’ union rights at the department and improve the relationship between labor and management. The letter does not reverse former Secretary Robert Wilkie’s controversial 2018 decision banning Title 38 medical professionals from using official time, although union officials said they expect to hear a separate decision on that issue in the coming weeks and months.
“[The Title 38 official time decision] is currently the subject of a lawsuit in federal court, joined not only by AFGE but several other unions as well, and that case remains pending,” Dargon said. “Right now, we’re waiting to see what Secretary [Denis] McDonough’s position on that will be.”
Also still unresolved are the longstanding and often acrimonious negotiations on a new contract between VA and AFGE. Following a broadly pro-management decision from the Federal Service Impasses Panel last year, the union voted overwhelmingly against ratifying the contract, leading to 30 days of mediation, which ended in February and during which the parties again failed to reach an agreement.
“Right now, we’re waiting for the VA to tell us how it’s going to move forward with the negotiations,” Dargon said. “We remain willing to come back and negotiate, so we’re just waiting to hear how the new administration and Secretary McDonough approach negotiations going forward.”