There are now several bills pending in Congress addressing the subject of “official time” for federal employee union representatives. The latest bill would, if passed, have a financial impact on the use of official time by federal union representatives by reducing the amount of a future retirement annuity for some union representatives.
What Is “Official Time?”
“Official time” refers to time a federal employee spends at work collecting federal pay and benefits but working on behalf of a union instead of performing the federal job for which he was hired. The actual amount of time spent or the cost of this practice is unknown. The last report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the use of official time was in 2012 where OPM calculated the number of hours used on official time was 3,439,499.
The cost of this was $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits as calculated by OPM. The number of hours used increased by 545,527 between 2009 and 2012. (See How Much Official Time Used by Federal Unions? No One Really Knows)
Despite the cost, the reality is that the actual number of hours used was probably greater, perhaps considerably greater, than the number of reported hours. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found when it checked that agencies often have no consistent systems in place to track the amount of time union representatives spend away from their federal job and work on behalf of the union. There is also no reliable or consistent system used by agencies to determine if the time spent is used to represent employees or spent on internal union business or political activity.
A bill was recently introduced that would require OPM to submit an annual report on the amount of official time used. The bill would also attempt to track how the time is used, how many employees are using official time, and other related issues.
The Official Time Reform Act of 2017
Congressman Jody Hice (R-GA) introduced the “Official Time Reform Act of 2017.”
This bill is different than others previously introduced as it would take a bite out of an employee’s retirement pay under certain conditions. This is what the bill would require:
An employee may not be allowed credit under this section for any day of service spent principally on official time, as described under subsection (b), that is in excess of 365 days in the aggregate.
For purposes of this subsection, an employee spends a day principally on official time if at least 80 percent of the time such employee would otherwise be in a duty status during such day is spent on official time granted under section 7131.
The bill also adds one kicker: “The amendment … shall apply on the date of enactment of this Act, regardless of whether an employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement in effect on such date.”
This bill would cut any future annuity payments for a federal employee using most of his time working on behalf of a union.
There are reportedly about 200 federal employees working full-time on union activity in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). At one time, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had 85 nurses working full-time on union activity. In addition, four addiction specialists, nine pharmacists and pharmacists technicians, and various other medical professionals and technicians were reportedly working solely on behalf of a union while being paid by the federal government. According to a report, there are more than 340 VA employees working on official time.
Strong Opposition by Unions to Restrictions on Official Time
Should this bill become law, most of these full-time union representatives in these two agencies (and others with full-time union representatives) would probably choose not to work solely on behalf of a union as it would substantially reduce their future retirement income. That, presumably, is the intent of this new bill.
It is not a surprise that federal employee unions oppose the bill. A press release from AFGE contains these statements:
The legislation targets federal employees’ use of official time, which is the system Congress established to ensure that all employees entitled to union representation receive it – regardless of whether they choose to join the union. Federal employees who volunteer as union representatives spend all or part of their work day on official time, where they work with employees and managers to resolve disputes, address issues of discrimination and retaliation, and effect improvements in the workplace that benefit all employees. Official time is official agency business.
Employees are allowed to use official time only to perform representational activities, such as setting procedures that protect employees from on-the-job injuries, enforcing protections from unlawful discrimination, providing workers with a voice in determining working conditions, and representing employees in grievances and disciplinary actions.
Union representatives are not allowed to use official time to conduct union-specific business such as organizing new members, holding internal union meetings, electing union officers, or engaging in partisan political activities.
The use and control over official time is obviously related to politics. Democrats usually strongly support the concept. Federal employee unions provide vocal support for Democrats and generally oppose Republicans. Republicans are often opposed to unfettered use of official time for some of the same reasons.
A Washington Post column addressing this bill essentially supports and expands upon the arguments in favor of having official time usage without the proposed restrictions as argued by unions and the Democrats opposed to the measure:
This argument (restricting official time) ignores how official time advances agency business. For example, union representatives use official time to participate in the labor-management forums created by President Barack Obama’s 2009 executive order. The forums are designed to foster labor/management collaboration “to deliver the highest quality services to the American people.”
And, summarizing the author’s conclusion in his own words, “There were plenty of good-sense arguments…against the legislation, but they did not sway the majority Republicans.”
In recent years, when the president is a Democrat, the use of official time is not a significant issue. President Clinton and Obama fostered the concept of management and unions working as partners in agencies. The amount of time used and the cost of the salaries and benefits are not an issue. Under Republicans, official time usage, how it is used and the cost of the time becomes a concern.
OPM generally reflects the political preferences of the party occupying the White House. No official time reports were issued since 2012 and no pressure was on agencies to track how much time was used or how the time was used.
The argument that there are already restrictions on official time by not allowing union representatives to conduct internal union business while receiving a government salary and using government equipment is correct. What critics choose to ignore is that without any systems to track how the time is used or even how much is used, the restrictions are theoretically in place but probably ignored since full-time union representatives are largely operating on their own.
Most people want to think others will act responsibly and within restrictions that are approved. Experience, unfortunately, shows a tendency in human nature to do what we want if we can get away with it. Articles detailing activity on union corruption, such as AFGE Officer Lies Under Oath to Chief FLRA ALJ While AFGE Locals Continue Corruption Crimes at Higher Rates Than Ever, may point to a rationale for having restrictions in place with incentives to follow legal and regulatory requirements.