Cutting Federal Agency Costs for Union Activity

How much official time was used by federal employee unions in FY 2019? The latest report from OPM breaks it down.

The Trump administration has been successful in cutting costs for the federal government’s expenses supporting activity by federal employee unions. The latest data released by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) show a decline in official time use of more than 28% in fiscal year (FY) 2018 from previous years.

Way back in 2016, the federal government spent $174,789,810 on official time for federal employee union representatives. According to an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report issued in 2018 on the 2016 figures, the cost for this use of paid leave by federal employees increased by 7.55 percent from FY 2014 to FY 2016.

What Is Official Time?

According to OPM, “‘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.”

OPM was concerned about the use and cost of federal employees being paid their regular salaries and benefits while representing the union. The OPM report noted:

OPM will continue exploring opportunities to identify useful practices for monitoring and reporting on the use of official time and sharing these practices with agencies across the government to assist agencies in strengthening internal controls and increasing transparency, accountability, and accuracy.

Declining Use of Official Time

The efforts by the administration to cut down on the use of official time have apparently been successful.

In the latest OPM report on this subject, there was a decrease of 28.26 percent in the use of official time by federal employees representing a union while being paid by the federal government. In 2016, 3,611,112 hours of official time were used. In 2019: “bargaining unit employees spent a total of 2,606,390 hours performing representational duties on taxpayer-funded union time….”

According to OPM:

Large amounts of official time allocated to agency employees conducting activities on behalf of unions have resulted in widespread diversion of resources from agency mission-critical functions. In many cases, where agency union representatives serve as full-time union officials, agencies are no longer able to rely on employees even for a portion of their duty time, to complete the duties of the positions for which they were hired.

The most widely publicized restrictions on official time were in an Executive Order issued by President Trump in 2018. The Executive Order assumed that the paid time spent by federal employees on behalf of a union generally harmed a federal agency’s ability to accomplish its mission. The Order contained this statement:

Federal employees should spend the clear majority of their duty hours working for the public. No agency should pay for Federal labor organizations’ expenses, except as required by law. Agencies should eliminate unrestricted grants of taxpayer-funded union time and instead require employees to obtain specific authorization before using such time.

The administration noted that more than 470 federal employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spend 100 percent of their duty hours working for a labor union instead of serving veterans. This number includes 74 full-time nurses working for the union but receiving pay and benefits from the federal government.

It also noted the Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates it could complete 135,000 more retirement applications or 17,000 more disability determinations annually if taxpayer funding for union activities were redirected to public service functions.

The Executive Order restrictions were probably not the only reason for reducing official time costs in government.

The Executive Order was not issued until May of 2018. Moreover, unions worked hard to restrict or limit the use of a series of Executive Orders by filing a string of law suits.

While the Order was eventually largely implemented, it took time for the lawsuits to be reviewed in the courts—undoubtedly, a major reason for filing the cases in the first place.

Veterans Affairs has worked to cut down on expenses the agency paid for union activity. The agency previously announced a 56% decrease in official time use in the 2nd quarter of 2020 and expanding clinical and office space available for serving Veterans by more than 150,000 square feet, while saving taxpayers more than $1.4 million annually. The agency also announced in 2018 it was “moving nearly 430 medical professionals from taxpayer-funded union work back to health care jobs serving Veterans.” 

Agencies were also being urged to track official time more closely and to pay more attention to requiring approval of official time use.

Agency With Highest Official Time Costs in 2016 and 2019

The Department of Veterans Affairs was significantly ahead of other agencies in terms of the amount spent on official time in 2016. The cost in fiscal year (FY) 2016 was $49,142,863.90. In FY 2014, the cost of official time was $48,640,351.72.

In 2019, the total cost of official time in the VA was $21,006,419.70 (including salary and benefits) as 502,082.05 hours were spent on official time by federal employees. In 2016, 1,048,569 hours were spent on official time.

In 2019, Veterans Affairs lost the distinction of having the most official time costs. Instead, that award went to the Department of Defense which spent $21,314,955.07 on official time costs in FY 2019.

In fairness though, Defense had 492,668 bargaining unit employees while Veterans Affairs only had 324,105. Stated differently, Defense spent 1.07 hours per bargaining unit employee while Veterans Affairs used 1.55 hours per bargaining unit employee.

Compared to the Social Security Administration, both Defense and Veterans Affairs were more efficient. Social Security spent $10,743,743.79 on official time costs in 2019 with only 49,194 bargaining unit employees. That was 4.26 hours per bargaining unit employee.

NLRB Used Most Hours Per Unit Employee

Defense, Veterans Affairs and Social Security are large agencies and apparently more efficient or restrictive with the use of official time than some smaller federal agencies.

The most time spent on official time in terms of “Hours Per Bargaining Unit Employee” was at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That agency was in first place in this category using 9.50 hours per bargaining unit employee at a total cost of $603,808.17. Perhaps the higher differential at NLRB is because the agency is largely staffed by lawyers with expertise in labor relations law.

Federal Union View of Official Time Use

Federal employee unions usually consider expanding use of paying federal employees to represent unions to be beneficial to taxpayers (and to the unions). This statement from the largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees, reflects that point of view.

Official time reduces employee turnover, improves customer service, prevents costly litigation, and leads to quicker and more efficient implementation of agency initiatives. The important services that these federal employees provide the American public are evidence that there is too much at stake to weaken or eliminate the current system of structured communication and collaboration between federal employees and management.

It is very likely that when or if President Biden becomes president in January 2021, the restrictions on official time use will be removed and the amount of time used by federal employees paid to represent unions will again resume the previous upward trend.

Unions’ Use of Official Time in FY 2019

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