Paid Time for Union Activity and Government Efficiency

How much time and money are spent at the VA on official time? GAO finds no consistent reporting system.

“Official time” is a term used to describe the federal government paying union representatives their regular salary and benefits while representing a union.

How Much Time and Money Spent on Union Activity?

No one really knows how much is time and money is spent by federal union representatives on union activity.  According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in fiscal year 2012, the number of hours spent on official time was 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits. The number of hours used increased by 545,527 between 2009 and 2012.

While the OPM figure is very specific, the real answer is that no one really knows how much time or money is spent on these activities. In 2012, the GAO found that the official time report was not accurate. The 2012 GAO report implies the actual cost to the government was significantly higher than reported.

Labor relations expert and FedSmith author 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.

New GAO Report:  Lack of Accurate Information

Little has apparently changed since the 2012 GAO report.

In 2017, another GAO report has been issued. This report specifically concerns the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It should not surprise anyone the situation has not changed with regard to official time.

The report concludes that the VA cannot accurately track official time usage. It does not have a standardized way for its facilities to record and calculate official time.

So, the overall findings identified by GAO in 2012 in a larger study are still found to exist in the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016.

Employees Only Working For Union in VA

The use of official time in the VA has been an issue with concerns about the impact it may have on patient care. A letter from two Senators noted that 188 federal employees were spending 100% of their time on behalf of a union.

The same letter noted the agency employed at least 85 nurses, some making more than $100,000 per year, who were spending 100% of their time working on behalf of the union while, at the same time, the agency was listing openings for hundreds of nursing positions to be filled. (See Are VA Employees Working Full-Time for Unions Hurting Patient Care?)

Based on the latest GAO report, the letter did not generate a response within the agency that has solved the problem.

Summary of GAO Findings on Official Time

VA uses two separate time and attendance systems that track official time in different ways. The inconsistent recording of official time and lack of accurate data raises doubts about the agency’s ability to accurately monitor official time usage.

While the VA has taken steps to provide better training and guidance on this issue, GAO found timekeepers at two of three selected facilities were still not using correct time codes.

The VA provides a range of options for calculating official time used. VA annually collects and compiles these data agency-wide. In calculating official time, facilities may use records, estimates, or other methods. The data are inconsistent.

Without reliable data, VA cannot monitor the use of official time agency-wide or share reliable data with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

At all five VA facilities checked by the GAO, space for representational activities was less than 1 percent of the overall square footage. The agency does not collect or track data from individual facilities on the amount of space designated for representational activities.

At most selected VA facilities, VA managers and union officials GAO interviewed cited similar benefits of employees using official time, such as improving decision-making and resolving problems. There was no agreement on official time issues  such as when and how much official time may be used.

Why GAO Did This Official Time Study

In fiscal year 2012, there were over 250,000 bargaining unit employees at VA. Employees spent about 1.1 million hours performing union representational activities on official time according to OPM.

This report examines:

  • the extent to which VA tracks official time;
  • what is known about the amount of designated space used for union representational activities at selected VA facilities; and
  • the views of VA managers and union officials on the benefits and challenges of employees using official time.

GAO Recommendations

GAO made three recommendations to the VA. These recommendations included:

  • Providing consistent guidance and training on recording official time;
  • Taking steps to collect more reliable data from facilities; and
  • Using a consistent recording system for tracking official time.

VA agreed with GAO’s recommendations and stated that it would take action to address them.

Whether the latest GAO report will have a bigger impact than the last one remains to be seen. The question asked by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2013 has apparently not been answered: “Are VA Employees Working Full-Time for Unions Hurting Patient Care?”

The real answer may be that there is not enough accurate information to know the answer.

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