Federal employee union lobbying on the Hill

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 11, 2011

Patricia LaSala is fiercely proud of her nursing service to America’s veterans. She takes offense when politicians denigrate her work and that of her colleagues. After working at the San Francisco VA Medical Center for three decades, she is hurt and angry over the way some elected leaders portray the federal workforce.

She’s visiting Capitol Hill this week to let them know how she feels.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

LaSala, president of her National Federation of Federal Employees local, has participated in these lobby weeks for years. But this time, rather than preaching to like-minded officials, she’s targeting members of Congress who advocate things like freezing pay, cutting benefits and shrinking staff.

Or as she put it: “People who need to hear what it means to take care of veterans and how all of this vitriol that has been targeted to the federal workforce has hurt us.”

The union is holding its annual legislative week and representatives from around the country are visiting congressional offices with a plea to respect federal employees. When the Republicans won the House last year, it dramatically altered the playing field for federal workplace issues.

“There’s no question that the 2010 election result is causing a lot of problems for us in terms of being able to aggressively pursue our legislative agenda,” said NFFE President William R. Dougan. The changing of the House guard “has caused us to refocus our efforts and take more of a defensive posture, to hang on to what we’ve got.”

A letter to NFFE members from Randy Erwin, the organization’s legislative director, lists 10 pieces of legislation, including five bills the union opposes. “These are just a few of the threats that federal workers are facing,” Erwin wrote.

They include:

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr (R. N.C.) to end the defined benefit pension portion of the Federal Employee Retirement System for those hired in 2013 and after. “The cost to taxpayers of these benefits is unsustainable,” Burr said when he introduced the bill.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) to cut “official time” for union representatives. Official time is government paid time representatives use for union- related work. It is allowed by law, according to NFFE, in exchange for the legal responsibility federal unions have to serve all employees in their bargaining units, even those who do not pay union dues.

The self-explanatory Federal Workforce Reduction Act of 2011. Introduced by Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), the legislation would allow the government to hire one worker for every two who leave. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs must not be crowded out by unchecked government growth,” Lummis said.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Col.) to reduce federal employee pay by mandating two-weeks of unpaid leave in fiscal year 2012.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.) to make the probationary period for new federal employees two years long, double the current length.

When LaSala talks to congressional staff members, who generally treat her well, she said she tells them how bills like these hurt morale, hurt recruitment, hurt retention. “I represent people who are very worried about their health care and pension benefits,” said LaSala, who also is a NFFE national vice president. “I entered into a contract where I agreed to make less money because I knew that in the end I would have health care and a pension.”

But now she feels some lawmakers want to renege on that deal, and she worries about “the beating up of the federal employee.”

Among the offices she visited was the Capitol suite of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

There she met with staffer Emily Porter, who, in LaSala’s view, began verbally sparring about how the federal workforce is too large. LaSala said she felt a little badgered at first, but by the end of the conversation it seemed to her that Porter had softened a little.

“She was kind of tough on me until I started to talk about what it means to care for veterans,” LaSala said. Porter would not comment, but Michael Steel, a spokesman for the speaker, said there might have been a misunderstanding because LaSala had earlier indicated she wanted to discuss veterans’ issues and Porter is not the staff member who deals with federal workforce topics.

Boehner has certainly delved into the issue, including with this remark from last August: “It’s just nonsense to think that taxpayers are subsidizing the fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats who are out there right now making it harder to create private sector jobs.”

Remarks like that anger federal workers who feel like a political punching bag.

“We work at the VA because we want to take care of veterans. It’s really quite that simple,” LaSala said. “We really do honor the veteran.”

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