Congressman Francis Rooney (R-FL) has introduced a bill (HR 4090) which would, according to his press release “Stop Government Employees from Getting Paid Taxpayer Dollars for Union Activity”. The bill is called the Do Your Job Act with the purpose of ending “official time, an abusive practice where government employees use paid time off to perform union duties.”
In other words, the bill would eliminate the use of “official time” by federal employees who are representing a federal employee union.
Defining “Official Time”
Congressman Rooney described official time for federal employees working on behalf of unions this way in a press release:
“Union official time is a taxpayer-funded subsidy that cost hard-working Americans at least $162.5 million in 2014. Unions and federal agencies never report exactly how many federal workers are being granted official time, and at least hundreds of federal employees spend 100% of their time engaging in union activities while on the clock. This is a clear abuse of taxpayer dollars, and it does nothing to advance the interests of the American people who end up paying for it.
“The only restriction on official time is that it can’t be granted for internal union business, but it happens anyway. There’s no reason for federal workers to be paid a government salary to perform union work. I introduced this bill to stop this unfair practice and to ensure that federal employees are working for all taxpayers, not for unions.”
Official time has been a topic that is a fairly common subject of legislation to restrict or block its continued use. The chances of this bill passing the House when Democrats are in the majority are very slim and it will probably never come up for a vote in the current Congress.
OPM Definition of “Official Time”
Federal employee unions vigorously oppose any changes to official time as it provides a large government subsidy to unions.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defined official time as:
“Official time”, more accurately referred to as ‘Taxpayer-Funded Union Time’ is paid time spent by Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. In other words, official time is treated as work time, thus is funded by the American taxpayers while no service to the taxpayer is performed.
According to the latest report on official time from OPM, the cost for this use of paid leave by federal employees acting on behalf of a union increased by 7.55 percent from Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 to FY 2016.
The cost increased from about $162.5 million in FY 2014 to approximately $174.8 million in FY 2016. In addition, OPM estimates that the total official time hours across the government increased over a two year period from 3,468,170 in FY 2014 to 3,611,112 in FY 2016—an increase of 4.12 percent or 142,942 hours.
The reality is that in some agencies there is no accurate accounting of official time. In some agencies, there are employees who spend all of their time on “official time” and there is likely very little oversight for many of these employees. An overview of some of the problems with official time use in federal agencies was outlined by labor relations expert Bob Gilson in Union Official Time: Why a Basic Change is Needed.
While the full text of the new legislation is not available at the time of this writing, the arguments for and against official time are well known. When similar legislation was introduced in the past, AFGE explained its position against restrictions on the use of official time in this way and there is unlikely to be any change in the union’s position with regard to the new bill to restrict official time.
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 union’s statement is correct in outlining how official time can be used and existing legal restrictions on using the time. The problem is that the restrictions are not closely monitored in some agencies and, when a federal employee is being paid only to work on behalf of the union, it is unrealistic to assume all union officials will faithfully restrict their activities to those that are legally authorized.
More Effective Restrictions on “Official Time”
While the new bill to restrict official time will never see the light of day in federal agencies in the current Congress, the Trump administration has taken actions likely to be more effective – at least in the short run.
Executive Orders to restrict official time were initially largely enjoined by a District Court but found to be legitimate by a Court of Appeals decision. Legal fights about the Executive Orders will go on as unions work to keep the fight going until after the next presidential election in hopes that a Democrat will occupy the White House and the Orders will go away. That is probably their best strategy, although the downside is that arguments about a non-political federal workforce represented by political unions certainly ring hollow.
In the more immediate future, agencies are now taking their case to restrict official time before the Federal Service Impasses Panel. While previous Panel members have not been receptive to arguments about “public interest” and similar arguments on restricting time, the current Panel members are paying attention. Some agencies are having success taking this route.
Congressman Rooney’s bill to restrict or eliminate official time will be widely read by union officials and gather some publicity. The bill is not a threat to the current system as Democrats in the House will ensure it does not pass. Earlier attempts to restrict official time have also failed and the outcome will be the same this time around.
The administration has been more aggressive than previous administrations in restricting official time. This is likely due to the increasing political activity of federal employee unions and the perceived threat they represent in using their time and money to electing Democrats who agree with them and defeating Republicans who are not receptive to their goals or their arguments.
The concerns or fear of federal employee unions about real change in official time practices are probably unfounded. The only significant changes likely to emerge would only happen should Republicans gain control of the White House and Congress in upcoming elections.
The changes now emerging with actions by the Impasses Panel, Executive Orders and decisions by the Federal Labor Relations Authority are relatively easy to change in a new administration with a different philosophy regarding the role of federal employee unions.