WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials upped their fight with union leaders on Thursday by announcing plans to end “official time” status for more than 400 department employees, calling it a waste of taxpayer funds.

The move drew an immediate rebuke from the unions, who called it dangerous and potentially illegal.

“Today, the Trump administration and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie have committed a grave disservice to our nation’s veterans,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “Silencing (these employees') voices endangers our veterans.”

At issue are provisions in federal law and the unions’ contracts with the government allowing certain employees to perform union duties during work hours. The activities do not include efforts to recruit or support the union itself, but do include advocacy work like filing grievances or mediating conflicts.

Supporters have said the arrangement allows workers’ representatives in many cases to head off serious workplace problems before they become protracted legal issues.

But VA officials under President Donald Trump have taken aim at the practice, calling it a misuse of federal money that hurts veterans by bottling up key positions with workers not performing clinical duties.

“It’s common sense,” said VA acting Assistant Secretary for Human Resources Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd in a statement. “Allowing health care workers to do taxpayer-funded union work instead of serving veterans impacts patient care negatively.

“President Trump has made it clear: VA employees should always put veterans first. And when we hire medical professionals to take care of veterans, that’s what they should do at all times. No excuses, no exceptions.”

The change goes into effect on Nov. 15. Among the positions prohibited from performing “official time” will be physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors, optometrists, registered nurses, and physician assistants. Other job classifications will still be permitted to do the union-related activities.

35,000 health care jobs open

Cox said that if department leaders were worried about staffing levels, they’d address the nearly 35,000 vacant health care positions inside VA medical centers instead of focusing on several-hundred union-linked jobs.

“The administration needs to stop playing politics with our veterans’ care and fill the vacancies,” he said.

VA officials estimated that in fiscal 2016 alone, department employees “spent more than a million hours doing taxpayer-funded union work at a total cost of more than $49 million.”

A May 2018 executive order limited the amount of official time that any federal employee could use to 25 percent of their total work hours, in an attempt to cut back on the number of employees that use the entirety or majority of their time to conduct union work.

That order also gave agency supervisors the authority to oversee and approve official time in advance.

But in August, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that major components of that order as well as two others signed the same day overstep presidential authority, which forced the Office of Personnel Management to rescind guidance to agency leadership on official time.

OPM officials have said despite the legal concerns, department leaders should use those orders as guidance when bargaining with federal employee unions in the future, as the total official time hours available to union representatives at any particular agency are subject to contract negotiations between the unions and agency.

Union representatives said they plan to fight the VA move in court. VA officials said they plan to make the issue a key focus with the groups in upcoming collective negotiations.

The two sides have sparred over a host of issues over the last two years, including Trump-backed plans to shift more veterans health care funding to private-sector doctors.