Official time for federal employee union representatives has generated controversy and political action for a number of years. That does not change with a new president taking office in January and a new Congress that is now in session. In fact, there is generally more activity on this issue when administrations change.
Official time or “Taxpayer Funded Union Time” as it was called in one recent report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is “all time, regardless of agency nomenclature, granted to an employee by the agency to perform representational functions under 5 U.S.C. Chapter 71 and by collective bargaining agreement when the employee would otherwise be in a duty status.”
In other words, official time is time spent by a federal employee when working for a federal employee union and continuing to receive the employee’s full federal salary and benefits.
New Bill to Restrict Use of Official Time
A bill entitled the “Do Your Job Act of 2021” has been introduced and has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The bill was introduced by Congressman Dan Bishop (R-NC) and has 12 Republican co-sponsors.
Congressman Bishop had this comment about the bill:
The abusive practice of allowing union work to occur on official time wastes millions of taxpayer dollars every year, as federal employees use paid time off to perform official union duties. By amending the Civil Service Reform Act, we can ensure that Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars go toward the public services they are intended for, not union interests. But as it stands, some of these federal employees can lobby Congress for desired outcomes or even spend 100 percent of their time on union representative functions. This has to change.
It is somewhat surprising this bill is so short compared to the very lengthy bills often introduced in Congress. It is short and to the point. It reads:
Any activities performed by an employee relating to the business of a labor organization shall be performed during the time the employee is in a non-duty status.
Highlighting the purpose of the bill, Mark Mix, President of the National Right to Work Committee, stated in a press release, “This bill will end the outrageous payment of tax dollars to union officials pretending to be government employees.”
Executive Orders and Official Time
President Trump issued several Executive Orders to curb the use of official time. Of course, an Executive Order can be overturned by an incoming president and that is what happened.
Shortly after taking office, President Biden issued his own Executive Orders revoking the restrictions on official time imposed during the Trump administration. OPM has also recently issued new guidance to federal agencies revoking the restrictions on unions that were imposed during the Trump administration.
Hours Used and Cost of Sponsoring Unions
The Trump Orders were effective as there was a significant decrease in the use of official time during his administration. A recent report from OPM noted a decrease of 28.26 percent compared to the amount of time used in FY 2016.
According to OPM, the payroll costs, salary and benefits using official time hours in FY 2019 were $134,987,041.47. The estimated cost of this use of time went down by 23.83 percent in FY 2019 compared to the cost in FY 2016. OPM primarily attributed the decrease in payroll costs to the 28.26 percent decrease in the number of hours of time used as well as how OPM changed its methodology to more accurately calculate the cost to the federal government of providing financial support to federal employee unions.
Some agencies also reported a significant reduction in expenses as a result of the Trump Executive Orders. The Department of Veteran Affairs reported a 56% drop in official time usage after the Orders were issued, with 59,000 hours of “official time” logged by VA employees. The agency also reported it “expanded clinical and office space for serving Veterans by more than 150,000 square feet, while saving taxpayers more than $1.4 million annually” by retrieving space for agency use that had been used by federal employee unions.
Origin and Use of Official Time
Official time is authorized under the federal labor relations statute. It reads:
Any employee representing an exclusive representative in the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement under this chapter shall be authorized official time for such purposes, including attendance at impasse proceeding, during the time the employee otherwise would be in a duty status. The number of employees for whom official time is authorized under this subsection shall not exceed the number of individuals designated as representing the agency for such purposes.https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/5/7131
Federal unions note the use of official time was authorized in the labor relations statute as the unions are obligated to equally represent all bargaining unit employees whether they choose to pay dues or not.
The reality is that under presidents who are Democrats, the use of official time generally increases and is actually encouraged by creating committees or other organizations with agency and union representatives designed to enhance working together effectively. While the effectiveness of these councils or committees is open to question, they do increase the use of official time and the unions generally support these actions.
Under Republican administrations, the committees or councils are usually disbanded and this use of official time is taken away. As a result, the amount of time used by unions often goes down.
And, as might be expected in the political environment in which the federal employee workforce operates, federal employee unions donate their time, publicity operations and money in supporting Democrats running for elected office or supporting the policies touted by Democrats.
The “Do Your Job Act” would modify the labor relations statute by modifying section 7131 to eliminate any use of taxpayer funded time for federal employees working on behalf of a union.
While the bill has received the support of some Republicans and will probably be popular for the constituencies of those who support the bill, the reality is that this bill is unlikely to be passed in the House of Representatives. While the margin of the Democrats’ majority in the House is much smaller after the recent national elections, there is still a majority and the Democrats will almost certainly band together in support of the unions that support them.