Congressman Dennis A. Ross (R-FL), Senior Deputy Majority Whip, spoke on the House Floor on May 24, 2017 in support of his legislation to require the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to submit an annual report to Congress on the use of “official time” by Federal employees.
What Is Official Time?
Official time is the term to describe paid time off from assigned government duties for a federal employee to represent a union or employees in a bargaining unit.
Federal employees on official time are treated as if they are in regular duty status while engaging in representational activities. While federal law permits the use of official time for union representational activities, there are no requirements for agencies to report this use of time. OPM has occasionally reported on the total amount of official time used but, as noted below, the totals are often considered substantially under the actual amount of time used.
Official Time Reporting Bill Passes in the House
According to Congressman Ross, the bill, H.R. 1293, passed in the House of Representatives on a unanimous voice vote.
The bill would require the following information from OPM:
- The total amount of official time granted to employees.
- The average amount of official time expended per bargaining unit employee. The specific types of activities or purposes for which official time was granted, and the impact which the granting of such official time for such activities or purposes had on agency operations.
- The total number of employees to whom official time was granted, and, of that total, the number who were not engaged in any activities or purposes except activities or purposes involving the use of official time.
- The total amount of compensation (including fringe benefits) afforded to employees in connection with activities or purposes for which they were granted official time.
- A description of any room or space designated at the agency (or its sub-component) where official time activities will be conducted, including the square footage of any such room or space.
Purpose of This Bill
Currently, there is no reliable tracking on how much official time is used by federal employees working on behalf of unions. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office (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. (Also see Interesting Twists in OPM’s Official Time Report)
A more recent report by the GAO found that a similar problem now exists in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Congressman Ross states in his press release that the new annual reporting requirements will allow Congress to better account for federal employees’ use of working hours and eliminate wasteful spending.
In his statement on the House floor, Congressman Ross made the following argument in support of this bill:
The current lack of stringent reporting requirements, as well as the broad interpretation of the statute’s sole requirement that official time be carried out in a way that is ‘reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest,’ have clearly opened the door to abuse.
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform identified several cases where employees on official time engaged in all sorts of inappropriate activities while on taxpayer-funded time—including everything from leisure to criminal activities.
With greater transparency, employees will be less likely to abuse the system, which will result in less waste of taxpayer dollars.
It is far past time we require agencies to provide this information to Congress and the public.
Taxpayers deserve clear, reliable data on how many employees are performing union work on official time in lieu of their regularly assigned government duties.
Union Opposition to HR 1293
One would expect that federal employees unions would oppose the bill to require annual reporting on the use of official time. That will clearly be the reaction. The opposition is relatively muted compared to other legislation in the House which would have a greater impact on the use of official time and also impact a union representative’s pension in some cases. (See Federal Employee Unions and the Official Time Reform Act of 2017)
In a letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the American Federation of Government Employees expressed its opposition to the bill. The union appears to assume that the current OPM reports are reasonably accurate and that agencies are actually reporting the amount of official time used.
HR 1293 is unnecessary as agencies that use official time already track and report the use of official time to the Office of Personnel Management which publishes a government wide report that provides the cost and the number of official time hours used within the federal government. AFGE takes very seriously the reasonable and judicious use of official time, but most oppose any attempts to undermine or eliminate its use and the representation rights of federal employees under the guise of insuring accurate accounting.
There will be stronger opposition to passage of this bill in the Senate than there was in the House.
In reality, the bill would not limit the use of official time. It attempts to secure an accurate record of the amount and cost of official time and how it is used. As noted above, it is considerably less restrictive than other possible legislation. It may therefore have a greater chance of passing into law.