A week after a former employee and union official testified before congress about problems at the Veterans Benefits Administration St. Petersburg Regional Office, management installed a surveillance camera outside the office of the union representing employees.
On Tuesday, that union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594, filed a federal complaint, saying it was an attempt by management to create a chilling effect on union activities.
Management, however, told the Tribune that the camera and one other were installed for security purposes, not to monitor the union, and that the location was chosen by the contractor.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will now look into how and why the camera near the union office was installed, according to its chairman, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller.
“Given VA’s historical persecution and intolerance of those who dare to expose problems and challenge leaders to solve them, the installation of this camera is highly suspect,” Miller said in an email to the Tribune. “In light of the fact that this camera was installed just one week after a union official testified before congress about the corrosive culture within the St. Petersburg Regional Office, I look forward to receiving a thorough explanation from department officials regarding who made the decision to install the camera as well as the timeline and justification for this choice.”
In her complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, AFGE Local 1594 President Valorie Reilly said the installation of surveillance cameras outside the union office and other locations in and around the regional office headquarters “continues management’s ongoing anti-union campaign, which has consistently and persistently engaged in concerted efforts to bypass the union, retaliate and marginalize union officials in an effort to create a chilling of union activity in the Local.” AFGE 1594 represents about 900 workers at the St. Petersburg Regional Office and its satellite facilities, Reilly said.
Reilly filed the complaint, called a “Charge Against an Agency,” Tuesday. It contends regional office management has committed an unfair labor practice against the union by installing the cameras over the union’s objection, called a “demand to bargain.”
The surveillance camera near the union office, according to the complaint, was installed the day after the union filed such an objection with management. Reilly, in a phone interview, said union officials were informed a surveillance camera would be placed outside the union office the same day former ratings specialist Javier Soto was fired just days after delivering a scathing report on the quality of claims processing at the regional office.
Management had previously told the union it planned to install cameras in the elevator lobbies, a meeting room for veterans and outside, where several instances of vandalism have occurred.
“They did not mention any other internal cameras,” said Reilly, adding the union is also protesting creation of new security procedures at the Orlando office where Soto was working before he was fired.
Management at the regional office said the cameras have nothing to do with the union.
“The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office houses over 700 employees and is open to veterans and the public,” said Suzanne Nunziata, assistant director and acting spokesperson. “Leadership at the (office) takes the safety and security of employees and visitors very seriously. In April, the (office) was granted funds to purchase additional security video equipment to enhance coverage of areas open to the public and employees. As a result, two new fixed cameras were installed by a contractor in two elevator lobbies. The placement of the cameras was identified by the contractor. No camera is directed at the AFGE Office.”
Reilly said she is not molified by Nunziata’s explanation and did not even know about it until informed by the Tribune, despite her efforts to get a response from management.
“Of course I am concerned,” Reilly said. “They told me the cameras would be set up by the elevator lobby and meeting room 222. They did not mention the others. What they said and what they do seem to be two different things.”
Reilly said the union is also complaining about planned security changes in Orlando that include subjecting each employee to a security screening with a hand-held metal detector and banning several items, including “powdered substances, liquid soap and bubbles, alkali metals,” in addition to weapons, narcotics and fireworks.
Nunziata said those procedures have yet to be implemented.
If upheld, the complaint could result in an order for removal of the camera or for bargaining on the issue, said labor relations authority spokeswoman Sarah Whittle Spooner, speaking in general terms.
The complaint is the latest blast of bad news for the nation’s busiest veterans benefits claims processing center, where nearly 20,000 claims are 125 days or older as of last week, according to office officials.
On Tuesday, Miller took the office to task for failing to provide, as demanded, the reason why it fired Soto, just days after he compiled a scathing report about the quality in claims processing at the office. The report raised concerns about a flawed quality review process that led to inconsistences in how claims are reviewed for errors.
As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the office turned over some personnel records, but nothing that explained why Soto was fired, Miller told the Tribune on Tuesday evening.
The regional office has not responded to requests for comment about whether or when it will respond to the committee’s demands.