House Republicans berated the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday for allowing hundreds of employees to devote all their taxpayer-funded work hours to union activities instead of helping veterans.
VA records reveal that 290,000 employees spent around 1.1 million hours on union affairs in fiscal year 2015, with 346 of those employees devoting all of their hours to official time, the Daily Caller reported Friday.
Official time is, according to the Office of Personnel Management, "paid time off from assigned government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees," for which taxpayers foot the bill.
This discovery led Republicans and some Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations to demand that the VA provide a full account of how official time is spent at the VA.
The issue arose after a recent report from the Government Accountability Office showed that the VA does not have a standardized method of tracking hours and attendance. The department uses two different systems to record and calculate work hours and it has not properly trained employees on how to use them.
"The inconsistent recording of official time raises questions about VA's ability to monitor its use, but [VA Time and Attendance System, or VATAS] could help to standardize this process," the GAO report said. "In rolling out the new system, which VA expects to complete agency-wide in 2018, VA has provided inconsistent training and guidance on how to use the codes in VATAS."
"Without reliable data, VA cannot monitor the use of official time agency-wide or share reliable data with the Office of Personnel Management, which reports on the government-wide use of official time," the report added.
"Something's gotta change," Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) said at the hearing Thursday. "I appreciate y'all having the hearing, but look, this is unbelievable, unbelievable what we have here. So let's hope we can change it and get rid of all these folks on official time."
Union officials and managers at three of the five VA facilities the GAO visited, however, believe that official time can be spent in a productive way to improve relations between management and labor.
In the GAO report, union officials assert that official time is beneficial because it provides time for union officials to "build and maintain good rapport" with management, and managers and union officials from four out of five groups said official time "may help resolve problems before they escalate."
Union officials from national and local levels also insist that official time provides a channel for employees to report concerns and uncover issues, such as overprescribing opiates and long wait times for veterans. The report states that officials from one national union had nearly 50 whistleblowers report issues with long wait times at the VA.
Despite the whistleblowing, long wait times and prescription problems still persist at the VA. Some critics believe this is because official time consists mostly of rhetoric, rather than caring for veterans.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) raised these concerns on Thursday, demanding that Kim McLeod, acting VA executive director for labor management relations, and David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, provide in 60 days a direct correlation between the number of hours spent on official time and the quality of veteran care.
"I need a direct correlation between the amount of official time and a direct result in terms of training and quality," Meadows said.
The number of taxpayer-funded hours spent on union activity at the VA has increased each year. The Office of Personnel Management estimated that in fiscal year 2012, the VA spent nearly $47 million on union official work, more than any other department.
"I love the way government works–a fancy name, official time. It sounds like they're actually working for the taxpayers, working for the veterans, when in fact it's just the opposite," Jordan said.
Democrats working alongside Republicans were also concerned by the use of official time at the VA, but some still believe that official time has its benefits.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D., Texas) feared that Republicans saw official time as "shameful," the Daily Caller reported.
"If we agree official time has value, then we can move on to the other questions," he said. "If we don't believe in the value of official time, if we think it's a scam and a fraud, well that's a decision we can make as well."
But in the wake of January's GAO report, it is likely that if a correlation is not drawn between official time and improved veteran care, then Republicans will vie for official time to be eliminated.
William Lawrence Kovacs, a witness at Thursday's hearing and a labor policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told lawmakers that Congress should eliminate official time.
"Union official time is an unwise use of limited tax dollars and serves the private interests of unions," he said. "The public does not directly benefit from the use of official time. Congress should eliminate the use of official time."