Unions, Official Time and the Politically Neutral Fed Workforce

By on March 3, 2016 in Human Resources with 153 Comments

Image of gavel beside desk sign that says 'labor law'

“Official time” is time used by a federal employee who continues to receive full salary and benefits when representing a federal employee union. The amount of time is required to be “reasonable” and usually addressed in a contract between the agency and the union.

The reality is that no one really knows how much official time is used and the annual cost in salary and benefits is being paid by the government for this purpose. There are agencies where one or more employees spend 100% of their time representing unions.

A House committee recently sent letters to a number of agencies asking them for information on official time. The letters requested data such as names, salaries and whether or not the employees engaged in official time activity. Agencies were given until February 26 to provide the data to the Committee. It is not known if the agencies complied with the letters from the House Oversight Committee.

Official time has become a political issue in Washington. It isn’t hard to see why.

Federal employees are hired to serve the administration elected and to implement administration policies and those passed by Congress. In effect, federal workers are, in theory, a politically neutral workforce.

That was the theory behind the Pendleton Act of 1883 which required that federal employees be hired competitive examinations for federal employees rather than political loyalty or affiliation.

At the time, this was a new concept as the “spoils system” was used to hire federal employees and to reward those who supported the winning candidates. The system worked pretty well in ensuring that the federal government was neutral and well respected by the American public. The system was to be monitored by the Civil Service Commission (since renamed as the Office of Personnel Management).

Since unions were first allowed to represent federal employees after the election of President John Kennedy in the 1960’s, federal employee unions have gradually become seen as strong supporters of Democrats running for office. They effectively use these organizations to provide publicity on current issues and legislation, support favored candidates and using some of their time and money as political supporters of candidates, usually Democrats. (See, for example, AFGE Endorses Clinton for President and NTEU Endorses Clinton for President)

The political conflict of federal employee representatives supporting one political party over another predictably creates political friction. Many Republicans now see federal employee unions (and, perhaps by extension, federal employees) as entities that need to be restrained through the political process while Democrats generally want to leave them unfettered. The impact of this friction on federal employees is unknown but it raises the possibility of the federal workforce along with salaries and benefits becoming a political football of sorts.

A bill just reported out of committee on March 1st by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reflects the politics of the issue. As reported by the House committee, the bill would require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to report each year on how much time is spent by federal employees on union activity and how much it costs the government for their salary and benefits. The bill, if passed into law, would also require OPM to provide information to Congress on how this time is being used and what type of facilities the agency is providing to unions.

OPM does occasionally provide some data to Congress on official time statistics. As one author noted in an article on one of the official time reports issued by OPM: “It’s always fun to read the wording attached to a government document that suggests the information provided is probably inaccurate.  Also fun is the language used by the Agency publishing the report of that information claiming it has no responsibility for its accuracy.  OPM is an apparent master of this…”

Obviously, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee doesn’t have much faith in the OPM data either which is the rationale behind the bill to try and gather more data on the activities and cost of the government supporting federal employee unions.

Unions, and some Democrats in Congress, argue that official time is beneficial in that it helps to resolve disputes in the workplace. Federal employee unions also make the argument that they are required to represent all employees in the bargaining unit, including many who are not dues paying members, and that official time allows them to do that.

In some states, employees can be required to pay a fee to unions even if they do not join as a payment to the union for their services. That is not the situation in the federal government which essentially functions as a “right to work” state with regard to labor relations.

Previous attempts to pass legislation to restrict or to forbid granting official time have not been successful. With the two Congressional chambers controlled by Republicans, the chances of such a bill passing are more likely. Whether a president who is a Democrat would sign such a bill is not known but is unlikely given the partisan politics surrounding the issue.

H.R. 4392 as Introduced

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.


About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources.