“Official time” is the term of art used in the federal government’s labor relations program to describe the time spent by union representatives working on behalf of the union but still being paid their regular employee salary and benefits. A new report issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) describes the use of official time by unions in government.
In short, the amount of money and time being spent on union activities has been increasing in recent years. As this chart from the OPM report shows, the amount of time and money has increased each year since 2009. In fiscal year 2012, the number of hours spent on official time is up to 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits as calculated by OPM. The number of hours used has increased by 545,527 since 2009. Currently OPM notes that about 60% of the federal workforce is represented by a union.
Total Official Time Hours – FY 2008-2012
|Total Official Time Hours
The use of official time has become a political issue. Federal employee unions generally support Democrats running for office and, in fact, most of the major changes in the federal labor relations program have been made when the Democrats occupied the White House. The program was established by an executive order under President Kennedy in 1962, the labor relations statute was strongly advocated by federal unions and became law under President Carter in 1978, labor-management partnerships were established under President Clinton and President Obama created labor-management “forums” by an executive order in 2009.
Each of these actions increased the viability of federal employee unions and have been beneficial to the unions. The predictable side effect of these actions is also that federal employees are also seen less as a politically neutral workforce that implements the policies of the administration in power and more as an adjunct of the Democratic party.
As a result, there have been efforts in Congress recently to restrict the use of official time by federal employee unions. Republicans who see unions using their position and influence to elect political opponents are not anxious to provide further opportunities to increase the political opportunities for an opposing political party. (See, for example, “Official Time” for Union Officials Under Fire in Congress)
By comparison, OPM reported that agencies used a total of 4,758,147 official time hours for fiscal year 2003. The Department of Defense (DOD) reported the largest number of official time hours at 1,199,419 for 2003—that in itself was a significant drop from the 1.36 million hours of official time used in DOD in 1998. For fiscal year 2012, DOD reported employees using about 337,000 hours of official time. It is not clear why there is a drop in use of official time since 2003. The reporting system used in 2003 was different in that each agency was asked how much official time was used. For the latest reports, OPM largely used the Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) system. We do not know if the differences in calculating the usage of official time made a significant difference.
And, while the increasing use of official time may be good news for unions, it is not always favorable for federal employees. A federal workforce that is seen as largely favoring one political party over another can expect to receive little sympathy for increasing pay and benefits under a Republican administration or a Congress under Republican control. Historically, the civil service workforce was created to prevent political favortism while a politically neutral workforce was seen as a step to creating a more effective government to the benefit of all Americans. Whether the federal workforce will been seen as increasing politicized in favor of one political party and how that will reverberate in the political arena remains to be seen. (See Legislation Introduced to Closely Track Payment of Union Officials’ Salaries for more.)
Contrary to the overall positive content of the latest OPM report on official time, a survey of readers earlier this year showed that 68% of respondents believe that the use of official time reduces the efficiency of government and is a waste of government resources. (See 69% of Survey Respondents Say Official Time Reduces Efficiency or Wastes Government Resources)
With this background, one might expect a report from OPM to largely reflect the philosophy of the current administration favoring the expansion of power and influence of federal unions. Some will see the report in that context and the report does describe the expansion of official time by federal unions as a positive event. It cites the virtues of establishing labor management forums that “allow managers and employees to collaborate in continuing to deliver the highest quality services to the American people.”
And, as noted in the OPM report in support of official time usage:
Membership in labor unions is…entirely voluntary for Federal employees and, as a result, there are fewer incentives for Federal employees to join and pay union dues than there are for some private sector and many state and local government employees. This voluntary membership in Federal sector unions results in considerable reliance by unions on the volunteer work of bargaining unit employees, rather than paid union business agents, to represent the union in representational matters such as collective bargaining and grievances….Official time is time spent by Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. It allows unions to satisfy their duty of fair representation to members and non-members alike.
In effect, the labor relations statute allows many federal employees representing unions to volunteer to be away from their job as a federal employee and, instead receive their same salary and benefits while working as a union representative. This concept is used with the intent of creating a more “effective and efficient government.” (See Interesting Twists in OPM’s Official Time Report)
The OPM report also notes that “Total official time hours across the Government have increased 1.30 percent from FY 2011 to FY 2012. The hours expended per bargaining unit employee decreased from 2.82 hours to 2.81 hours from FY 2011 to FY 2012.”
Labor relations expert Robert Gilson wrote, regarding the 2013 OPM report on official time, that the number of hours reported by federal agencies “is probably totally unreliable” for the reasons he outlined in Interesting Twists in OPM’s Official Time Report. With the complex federal systems and the political agendas of various parties, it is impossible to evaluate the accuracy of the OPM report.
In any event, according to the OPM figures, there is a considerable difference between agencies on the amount of official time used. For example, among agencies with at least 25,000 employees in bargaining units (i.e. represented by a union), the Department of Veterans Affairs used about 1.9 million hours of official time in fiscal year 2012. Health and Human Services (HHS), on the other hand, used less than 19,000 hours of official time.
Back in fiscal year 2003, Veterans Affairs employees reportedly used about 791,000 hours of official time and HHS used about 46,000 hours in that same year.
For agencies with fewer than 25,000 bargaining unit employees, the Department of Labor used about 55,000 hours of official time in fiscal year 2012, followed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development with about 51,000, while the Holocaust Memorial Museum report no hours used for official time. In fiscal year 2003, Labor used about 90,000 hours of official time.
What role do politics and the influence of unions in the administration play in this report and the reported numbers? There is no way to know but, as federal employee unions continue or expand their involvement in political activities, federal employees can anticipate more controversy regarding their role and the role of government subsidies from agencies to unions. There may also be a “cause and effect” on legislation impacting federal employee pay and benefits if the federal workforce is seen as favoring one political party over another. No doubt, the controversy over official time will continue for the foreseeable future.