Republicans: Is government union work delaying help for veterans?

Does a law permitting federal workers to do union work while on the clock at their government jobs shortchange veterans? That’s the suggestion from a pair of key Republican senators who have asked Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki for an accounting of what is known as “official time” at his agency.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, both senior members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to Shinseki a day after the White House said President Barack Obama is “deadly serious” about wiping out a huge backlog in veterans disability benefits claims.

“It is essential that every VA employee is dedicated 100 percent to our nation’s mission of providing the best healthcare to our veterans in a timely manner,” the lawmakers said in a letter obtained by Yahoo News.

“Federal employees not serving veterans during official time could lead to the failure of VA’s top goals and the well-being of those who have sacrificed in the service of our nation could be compromised,” Coburn and Portman wrote.

The senators said documents from the agency show 188 employees “in 100 percent official time capacity” from Jan. 1, 2012, to February 2013.” They include, Coburn and Portman wrote, a wide variety of health care providers, including nurses, addiction specialists, pharmacists, psychologists and others.

“Have any personnel assigned to processing disability claims been on 100% official time over the past 10 years? If so, how many?” they ask.

The practice is legal under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. It allows federal workers to perform union functions—collective bargaining or arbitration, for example—during official hours.

“Labor and management are equally accountable to the taxpayer and have a shared responsibility to ensure that official time is authorized and used appropriately,” according to the Office of Personnel Management, which tracks official time use.

In fiscal year 2011, federal employees used 3.395 million hours of official time, at a rate of 2.82 hours per bargaining unit employee. Total payroll costs, salary and benefits for fiscal year 2011 ran to $155,573,739.25, according to OPM.

The letter from Coburn, who is the top committee’s top Republican, and Portman, who is the top Republican on the panel’s Subcommittee on Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce, comes as GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate are pushing legislation to abolish “official time.”