These employees are on "official time," defined as "paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees," according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Their salaries range from $26,420 to the $131,849 being paid to a nurse in San Francisco who represents the Nation Federation of Federal Employees.
Government workers on "official time" have office space at the agency that employs them, are paid for full-time work, and receive medical insurance and other fringe benefits, even though many are not required to show up at the agency, reports Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
The VA spent $42.5 million on official time in 2011, including salaries and benefits.
Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki saying: "Documents show that your department recently employed at least 85 nurses, some with six-figure salaries, who were in 100 percent official time status. At the same time, the department is recruiting more people to fill open nursing positions."
But official time is not limited to the VA. The OPM reported that the federal government paid more than $156 million to workers on official time in 2011, up from $139 million in 2010.
Sen. Coburn told Furchtgott-Roth: "It is unacceptable for employees to spend 100 percent of their time away from the job taxpayers pay them to do."
The vast majority of campaign contributions from government worker unions go to Democrats, Furchtgott-Roth observed in an article for Real Clear Markets.
Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia has introduced a bill to limit official time, and in the Senate, Kentucky's Rand Paul has a bill that would completely eliminate it.