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New order causes flap at Van Zandt

An executive order by President Donald Trump slashing on-the-clock time for officers of federal unions helping fellow employees with grievances and such — or negotiating contracts — has generated controversy at Van Zandt VA Medical Center and across the nation.

The order, issued in May and effective Monday, limits the collective “official time” that officers in a workplace can spend to one hour per year for each union member — and no more than 25 percent of total work hours for any individual officer.

At Van Zandt, American Federation of Government Employees local President Andy Scherzinger, who represents 750 workers, has filed a flurry of complaints, while nationally, the AFGE has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the measure, “Executive Order 13837 for Ensuring Transparency, Accountability and Efficiency in Taxpayer Funded Union Time Use.”

Van Zandt management is only doing what’s required — executing the order handed down by the president, with guidance from the central VA, said Van Zandt spokesman Shaun Shenk.

Its execution of the order “is exactly in line” with the way that facilities all over the U.S. are doing it, Shenk said.

Trump’s order stresses that workers to whom it applies are paid with funds collected from the people.

“An effective and efficient government keeps careful track of how it spends the taxpayers’ money and eliminates unnecessary, inefficient or unreasonable expenditures,” states the ordinance introduction. “To advance this policy, executive branch employees should spend their duty hours performing the work of the Federal Government.”

Federal agencies

shouldn’t continue to allow “unrestricted grants of taxpayer-funded union time,” and federal employees “should spend the clear majority of their duty hours working for the public,” states the order, which includes tracking provisions to ensure compliance.

Scherzinger, whose job is in logistics, previously was entitled to use 100 percent of his time on union business, while his vice president was entitled to use 50 percent of her time, his secretary 15 percent, his treasurer 10 percent and his chief steward 5 percent, Scherzinger said.

The order would shrink Scherzinger’s time by three quarters and his vice president’s time by half.

Union agreements

The executive order should not apply at Van Zandt because the union’s master and supplemental agreements with the hospital established those customary official-time percentages, Scherzinger said, citing one of the executive order’s general provisions:

“Nothing in this order shall abrogate any collective bargaining agreement in effect on the date of this order.”

The agreements have been in place since the late 1990s, with no termination date, Scherzinger said.

“That means we

shouldn’t be touched,” he said.

National executive orders override local agreements, according to Shenk.

Trump’s executive order would limit total time for helping union members at Van Zandt and its outreach centers to 750 hours per year — one for each union employee.

“Seven hundred and fifty — yeah, that’s a joke,” Scherzinger said. “It’s not even half the hours we need.”

There are times when he spends days on issues connected with a single employee, he said.

As it relates to individual union officers, the executive order asks only that they “do 75 percent of the tasks they were initially hired to do,” Shenk said, “to perform the job they were hired to do in direct service to veterans.”

The executive order sets no limit on how much time a worker can spend on his own issues.

Since the order went into effect, Scherzinger has tried to continue as usual, but has encountered difficulties, with management declaring him Absent WithOut Leave (AWOL), despite his offer to take off without pay and despite continuing to be on site, he said.

He has filed a grievance with hospital management and a “demand to bargain and to cease and desist implementation” of the change order, alleging that management has failed to negotiate in good faith and is violating its contract with the union and violating federal law and the executive order itself.

Scherzinger has also filed Congressional grievances with U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District.

He also has filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the Federal Labor Relations Authority and a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special General Counsel, and he was planning to file a complaint with the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

AFGE lawsuit

Van Zandt management has worked amicably with the union in recent times and intends to continue to do so throughout the executive order transition, Shenk said.

“We will assist in any way possible,” clarifying, conversing, continuing to be a partner with the union, he said.

The suit by the AFGE, which represents 650,000 federal civilian employees overall, asks for an injunction to stop enforcement of the order, alleging that it “seeks to impermissibly rewrite portions of the federal service labor-management relations statute,” creating “extra-statutory restrictions” and “unduly burden(ing)” union efforts to represent its members’ interests.

A hearing on the lawsuit is being held this week in U.S. District Court in Washington, said Mark Sewak, national representative for the union district comprising Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The executive order contravenes the law — U.S. Code 7131, which provides for union employees representing other union employees to be given “official time in any amount,” as determined by the agency and the union working together, according to the lawsuit.

The executive order also contradicts the law by predetermining what “constitutes ‘reasonable, necessary and in the public interest'” with its arbitrary one-hour-per-year-per-employee rule, and by giving management “unilateral” discretion to allocate official time, according to the lawsuit.

And the executive order violates the First Amendment protection of free speech with its restrictions on help given to other employees, while also violating the principle of separation of powers because, with the order, the president is overstepping his legal bounds, according to the lawsuit.

The executive order will create dilemmas for union officers, because they’ll need to choose between devoting time to negotiating contracts and representing individual employees on grievances and other issues, according to Sewak.

Those individual issues can include fact-finding, arbitration work, investigations for Equal Opportunity Employment Commission claims, problems created by changes in working conditions and sexual harassment complaints, Scherzinger said.

More executive orders

A second executive order issued by Trump the same day in May sets a one-year limit on contract negotiations, to save taxpayer money on negotiating costs.

That order gives management an advantage because, after a year, cases go to the Federal Service Impasse Panel, which is comprised of political appointees of the president and thus favors management, Sewak said.

When there’s not an artificial limit, contract negotiations otherwise can take much longer than a year, Sewak said.

A third executive order makes it easier to fire under-performing workers.

The orders are designed to silence workers and ultimately make them “at-will” employees, Sewak said.

Van Zandt’s execution of the order is “exactly in line” with what VA facilities are doing throughout the U.S., although certain issues remain open to interpretation, Shenk said.

One such issue may be whether contract negotiations are subject to the official time limitations,

A provision in the main executive order states that “nothing … shall be construed to prohibit any agency from authorizing … union time as required” by a clause in the U.S. Code that seems to guarantee that officers would receive time for contract negotiations.

Van Zandt management doesn’t see the executive orders as a threat to harmony with the union, Shenk said.

“The relationship here between the management of Van Zandt and the local union is one of cooperation and communication, and that’s not going to change,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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