Official Time and the Implementation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement – A Micro Perspective

The author says that much has been written about the number of hours of official time used by the government, but from the perspective of Congress, OPM and others. She instead suggests looking at the subject from the perspective of federal employees in the workplace.

Much has already been written about the number of hours of official time used by the federal government – the debate over “how many hours” has been used by many detractors of the federal workforce and their opinions vary. (detractors don’t think they’re needed)

We are used to seeing this discussion from the perspective of Congress, the Office of Personnel Management, and almost everyone else. What if we look at the subject of union official time from the perspective of those of us in the immediate workplace instead?

Use of Official Time Under Recognition Coverage

Official time, in whatever form or amount negotiated between the employer and the union, should have been taken into account during the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement. Accordingly, the amount of official time granted to union officers and representatives should be based not only on the number of bargaining unit employees covered, but also on documentation that supports the official time need. Both are necessary. Although the Office of Personnel Management publishes reports showing the amount of official time usage by unions throughout the federal government, there is no analysis of these statistics.

As stated by Federal Services Impasse Panel on April 4, 2013 (2013 FSIP 013), “although the Office of Personnel Management publishes reports showing the amount of official time allotted to unions throughout the Federal government, the record in this case contains nothing to indicate whether any comparable units of approximately 215 employees have officers on 100-percent official time.” The reporting by agencies of overall official time usage does not provide insight or isolate information from such a large body of data in a format that would allow for a meaningful analysis or scrutiny of the reported results.

Collective Bargaining Unit/Management Negotiated Process

Once the official time article has been negotiated and agreed to by the parties, it is time to ask the question: “How can the parties work together to decrease the official time needed in the future?”

From an organizational level, it is imperative that ALL supervisors read and understand the collective bargaining agreement. The collective bargaining agreement is the process, the rulebook, that regulates the way managers and employees perform their jobs, interact and measure performance. In many ways it is comparable to an automobile owner’s manual; it should be read before the warning light goes on to avoid unnecessary expense and inconvenience.

If all parties, management and covered employees, read and understood the collective bargaining agreement, many conflicts might never arise. Resources and time levied on other federal agencies and departments, including the EEO, the Inspector General, the Chaplain, and the Employee Assistance Program, may see corresponding reductions. What a thought–everyone is on the same page, working collaboratively from the same sheet of music! Sounds harmonious, indeed.

Unfortunately, the reality is that all the official time and efforts by management and the union negotiation team are focused on the negotiation and finalization of the collective bargaining agreement. Too often, the painstakingly negotiated agreement ends up gathering the proverbial dust on the shelf or is lost in cyberspace. The perception of unfairness stems from the failure to play by the same set of rules. That perception becomes reality. It is that simple.

Supervisor/Collective Bargaining Unit Responsibilities 

The response that any organization doesn’t have the time or resources to train their supervisors on the collective bargaining agreement ignores the cost-benefit of the ramifications of not doing so. Don’t we all want an outcome of fewer grievances, increased job performance, reduced perceptions of being treated unfairly over work assignments, and reduced manpower and material costs associated with all forms of complaints?

Furthermore, joint training will facilitate and enhance the building of better relationships between managers and employees. Training will create understanding and effective communication, with the outcome bringing positive attitudes and trust. This leads to a successful workplace.

Agencies must evolve their management cultures and identify knowledgeable internal (or if necessary, external) resources to train everyone on the contractual obligations and responsibilities inherent in the collective bargaining agreement. With this comprehensive approach, management will acquire a solid comprehension of the organization’s negotiated contract. Managers will develop the necessary skills to increase positive supervisor interaction with employees, where the art of communication, coaching, active-listening and conflict resolution are imperative.

Time Is Money 

Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll be able to feed himself for a lifetime. The agency invests in its managers and develops capable individuals who can further support and provide guidance throughout the supervisory chain. An organization that values the people they hire to perform their mission should “teach them to fish” and develop those skills and tools that will allow for optimum mission performance. The best way to illustrate this is to examine what happens when grievances are initiated.

Performance is disrupted when grievances are initiated. The focus then turns away from mission tasks to the process and procedures to ensure compliance with the collective bargaining agreement. How much time and cost are associated with a grievance? Time to document. Time to analyze. Time to meet. Time to discuss options. Time to possibly engage with outside individuals or organizations. It is likely that management uses as much or more duty time than union “official time” to resolve grievances. Could the cost actually be greater in terms of management salaries than those of union officials and representatives?

Bottom Line

Perhaps if we start to see organizations investing in true training and time into the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement, we will gain a healthier, more productive work environment and a better insight into what “official time” is actually being used for. Supervisors at all levels need to take their responsibilities seriously and those who think they do not need training, well, maybe they are part of the problem and not the solution. This may be our starting point to address not only the issue of what official time is and why it is used, it’s the first steps to a more efficient and effective workplace that serves the needs of the nation.

Marla Levenson has spent over 25 years working for the federal government. Her career includes many years with the US Department of Defense working for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and DCMA overseas and stateside in the contracting and program management career fields.