‘Union Time on the People’s Dime’

Use of “official time” by federal employee union representatives was the subject of a recent hearing in Congress.

Use of Official Time by Union Officials

Official time has been the subject of Congressional bills and a recent report from the Office of Personnel Management. Now, as a follow-up to OPM’s report on official time (OPM), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has held a hearing on the use of official time in the federal government.

Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-FL) released a memo detailing agency responses to the Committee’s request for information on the use of federal labor union “official time.” The memo compiled data received from 23 federal agencies. It shows that nearly one thousand federal employees are spending at least half of their official time working as union representatives.

Results of Data Received from Agencies on Official Time

These are the results of the Subcommittee’s request for information from agencies regarding the use of official time according to the memo from Congressman Meadows:

  • Agencies lack a simple, consistent system for recording official time.
  • For fiscal year 2017, twenty three agencies reported 12,508 employees used official time in some capacity. Of those employees, 981 spent between half and all of their workday on official time.
  • Across the federal government, 221 employees spent at least half of their time on official time while getting paid over $100,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs the greatest number of such employees (61).
  • The total compensation for all federal employees using any official time in fiscal year 2017 was $1 billion.
  • Union officials on 100 percent official time may qualify for honorary, informal, and non-performance-based awards. There were 102 employees on 50 percent or more official time who received an award in fiscal year 2017.

Total Official Time Used is Unknown and Often Not Counted

Robert (Bob) Gilson is a federal labor relations expert and an author who frequently contributes articles to FedSmith on the topic of federal labor relations. In his testimony, he noted that no one really knows how much official time is used by agency union officials. He noted that “The cost (of official time) may top a billion dollars a year.”

With regard to how much agencies contribute to the support of federal employee unions, Gilson also noted:

Federal unions pay almost nothing toward the cost of their day to day operations within an Agency. This creates large surpluses that may support lobbying, organizing and other internal business since the taxpayer is paying their operational costs.

Based on the most recent DOL (Department of Labor) reports, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees national offices claim to have $54 million and $44 million in assets respectively.

Testimony by Trey Kovacs, Labor Policy Analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute also reflected the unknown amount of official time used.

…Congress should take steps to improve tracking and record-keeping of official time. Under the current accounting regime, the cost of official time is severely underestimated. Further, the true cost of the union subsidy is difficult to determine because of poor tracking and recording of when employees use official time. For instance, official time is frequently taken without supervisor authorization, which is commonly required by collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, what activities federal employees engage in while on official time are often unknown to their agency employers.

Legislation Pending To Restrict Official Time Usage

Several bills are pending in Congress on the topic of official time. There is no indication that these bills will actually become law but the recent hearing may serve to bolster support for the legislation. Not surprisingly, the primary sponsors of these bills were asking questions at the hearing on official time.

Congressman Jody Hice (R-GA) 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.

Another bill (H.R. 1293) has been passed by the House of Representatives requiring OPM to submit an annual report to Congress on use of official time by federal employees.

While proposals to restrict the use of official time are frequently raised in Congress and allegations are made stating that the use of time may hinder the work of these agencies, these bills rarely pass into law.

The bill requiring an annual report on official time by OPM has the greater chance of passage as it has passed the House and reported out of a Senate committee. Whether it will get a Senate vote though remains to be seen.

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