Two Republican senators pressed Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki about the 188 employees who work on “official time” on behalf of unions, at taxpayer expense, even as the VA struggles with a massive backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

“Documents from your department list 188 VA employees serving in 100 percent official time capacity during the time period spanning January 1, 2012 through February 2013,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wrote to Shinseki Wednesday. “During this time of sequestration and tight budgets, it is important to know how so many employees can be spared to serve the interest of outside groups, instead of carrying out jobs that are essential to the health, safety and transition of our nation’s veterans.”

More than 600,000 veterans are not receiving the benefits they should because of a claims backlog at the VA. “Most frustrating, actually, is getting them everything they need and then not getting any kind of response in return,” Milan Parks, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant in North Las Vegas, Nev.,  told the local ABC affiliate.

Portman and Coburn want to know if any of the official-time employees should be processing claims. “Have any personnel assigned to processing disability claims been on 100% official time over the past 10 years?” they asked Shinseki.  “If so, how many?  How might official time affect VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog?”