“Official Time” for Union Officials Under Fire in Congress

A bill has been introduced to restrict the use of paid time by federal employee union representatives who are performing duties on behalf of a union.

“Official time” refers to a practice under which the federal government pays the salaries of federal employees who work as union representatives. In other words, the government pays a person to work on behalf of the union while still receiving salary as a federal employee.

As federal employee unions have become synonymous with the election campaigns of Democrats running for office, it isn’t surprising there would be a blowback.

Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) have this week introduced the Federal Employee Accountability Act. The purpose of the bill is to reduce “official time” for government employees who receive a federal salary and benefits to represent a union.  “Official time” was put into the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act to allow federal employees can be paid their regular salaries and benefits while performing duties not directly related to the mission of their agency. In some cases, federal employees perform these union-related activities on a full-time basis instead of doing the work they were hired to do by the government.  According to the Office of Personnel Management, in 2011, the government spent $155 million on 3.4 million hours used for “official time.” (Also see Federal Union Official Time: Myths Perpetuated, Realities Hard to Come By)

According to a press release issued by Senator Portman:

“Unfortunately, however, many agencies allow their taxpayer-funded employees to focus their time and energy on full-time political, union activities that don’t have anything to do with the official task at hand.  At a place like the VA, taxpayer dollars should be funding employees to tackle the challenges of the claims backlog and providing necessary medical care to our veterans.  Our veterans deserve nothing less than that, and this legislation will ensure that happens.”

 A similar philosophy was expressed by Senator Coburn who wrote in a press release:

Agencies like the IRS and VA have hundreds of employees on their payrolls that do nothing but full-time union work paid for by taxpayer dollars.  This bill will restore the public’s trust by ensuring federal employees – and the taxpayer funds that support them – are instead used to appropriately execute the mission of every federal agency.”

The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) also prohibits requiring federal employees to pay dues to a union even though the union is legally required to represent all employees in a bargaining unit whether they are paying dues or not. In theory at least, the official time provision is a benefit given to federal employee unions who have the responsibility to represent all employees equally.

The Federal Employee Accountability Act that has been introduced would generally repeal the official time provisions of the CSRA.  The bill would, however, provide an exception where both unions and agencies agree the use of official time is “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.”  The bill would not affect federal employees’ ability to organize or have union representation in hearings. The bill is a companion bill to H.R. 107 sponsored by Representative Phil Gingrey, M.D., (R-GA).

It is not clear that this bill, if it were to become law, would make a big difference in the amount of time spent by union representatives while being paid as a federal employee. Under the CSRA, an agency may agree to provide paid time to a union representative. Most union contracts provide for at least some official time to be used. Some contracts, as noted above, allow union representatives to spend all of their time performing union duties. The “exception” allowed by the new bill has language that is similar to the CSRA as the use of official time would have to be “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.”

From the press releases that have been issued, that is not the intent of the legislative authors although it is not clear if the authors of this new bill really know what they are doing. The CSRA reads, in part:

 “in connection with any other matter covered by this chapter, any employee in an appropriate unit represented by an exclusive representative, shall be granted official time in any amount the agency and the exclusive representative involved agree to be reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.”

The difference in the CSRA language and what is quoted in the press release sounds very similar. Other than the perceived intent of the authors, the bill would potentially not change very much in the federal workplace. Of course, if the bill should pass the Senate (unlikely), the bill that passes the House would probably be much more restrictive.

In short, federal employee unions are in the sights of Republicans in Congress. That is not likely to change anytime soon as they are generally seen as having loyalty to one political party and denigrating the the political neutrality of the federal workforce. Of course, if the Senate changes hands and there should be a Republican president and Republican Congress, major changes would likely occur.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47