Several bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives to restrict or put more control on federal employees time representing a union but paid by the government.
Defining “Official Time”
“Official time” is unique to federal labor relations. It is time used by an employee receiving full federal salary and benefits while representing a union.
The amount of time is required to be reasonable. This is usually addressed in a contract between an agency and a union. Some federal employees spend 100% of their time working as a union representative. Under existing law, the continue to receive their full pay and benefits.
Congressman Jody Hice (R-GA) recently introduced H.R. 1364, the Official Time Reform Act. This bill would impact future retirement pensions of employees spending more than 80% of their time as a union representative. (See Federal Employee Unions and the Official Time Reform Act for more detailed information on this bill.)
Bill Restricting Official Time Advances
That bill has been approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and sent to the full House.
During the mark-up of the bill, the Committee adopted an amendment introduced by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC). The amendment would prohibit federal employees working 80% or more official time from receiving bonuses.
Congressman Hice released the following statement after the legislation passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:
Despite the obligation of federal employees to the taxpayer to complete the job they were hired to perform, the government has thousands of employees who spend the majority of their regular working hours on union activity and lobbying efforts. In Fiscal Year 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs had over 300 employees – nurses, therapists, pharmacists, a physician, and even a prosthetic limb specialist – who were hired to serve our brave warriors but instead operated exclusively on official time. Rather than helping our heroes, these individuals spend all their time engaging in union activities such as collective bargaining, filing complaints or grievances, and even grassroots lobbying. This is unacceptable and a grave misuse of valuable resources.
Federal employees are free to engage in union activities on their own time, and they are free to use union resources and dues to fund those activities; however, taxpayer dollars should be used for public, not private, needs. I applaud the work that went into this legislation and look forward to its consideration on the House Floor.
The bill would also legally prohibit engaging in any political activity, including lobbying, by a federal employee using official time.
Union Reactions to Restrictions on Official Time
“Union busting” has become a frequently used phrase by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). The reaction of AFGE to the contents of this bill are representative of most federal employee unions’ reaction.
AFGE wrote in a press release with the title of the “Union-Busting House Bill”:
The Official Time Reform Act of 2017 would arbitrarily cap how much time union volunteers can spend per day on representational work, such as resolving workplace conflicts between employees and managers, or meeting with agency leaders to discuss workplace improvements. It also would create a financial disincentive for employees to volunteer as union representatives by cutting their retirement for any time spent on representational work above the arbitrary caps.
“This legislation is a blatant attempt to bust federal employee unions and silence the voice of workers in decisions that impact not only their jobs, but services the American people rely on,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.
Political Reality and Federal Employee Unions
Federal employee unions have become increasingly politically active in recent years. The unions almost always support Democrats in elections. Nevertheless, the civil service workforce is intended to be a politically neutral workforce hired to implement policies of the current administration.
It is not a surprise that unions are now facing legislation that would damage their revenue. Presumably, the reaction or backlash by Republicans, who now control both chambers in Congress and the White House, was expected as a result of the unions’ partisan political activity.
On the other hand, Democrats strongly support unions. This bill is likely to pass in the House. Democrats usually support measures that help federal employee unions. It is more likely this bill will be defeated in the Senate than the House.
The chances of this bill passing have increased from 2% to 20% in recent days according to PredictGov.
In other words, the system is working as politics usually work in Washington. Whether the political activism by unions has helped or hurt federal employees—or the efficient and effective operation of government—is probably personal opinion rather than objective analysis.