A Beneficial Union

Better technology combined with open labor relations can cut the cost of official time.

As the renowned British composer, Sir Hugh Allen, once stated, "Jumping at several small opportunities may get us there more quickly than waiting for one big one to come along."

During these times of limited resources, the Labor Department has taken advantage of every small opportunity to achieve savings, including in the area of official time-authorized, paid time off from assigned duties so government employees can represent a union or its bargaining unit employees.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the average annual official time usage in the federal government from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2006 was 3.3 million hours. That equates to an average annual cost of nearly $125 million. In 2004, the Labor Department strategized to curb its own staggering costs in this area. The result was a three-pronged initiative to reduce the need for and to better manage the administration of official time-with the goal of accomplishing the department's mission.

First, to reduce costs associated with official time, the department revamped its Labor Employee Relations Management System, an automated system developed to track employee and labor-relations data. The upgrade has streamlined the administration of official time by providing managers real-time access to their employees' official time usage. This access reduces the misuse of official time by allowing managers to track whether a particular agency, office or employee is using more than a reasonable amount. Also, it allows managers to provide timely corrective guidance.

Then Labor negotiated collective bargaining agreements with its national and field unions to clarify contractual ambiguities and increase flexibility for managers. The new agreements have decreased the number of grievances filed and referred to arbitration. Accordingly, official time usage has been significantly diminished.

The third prong of the department's initiative was to develop a robust alternative dispute resolution program. A significant percentage of Labor's official time results from litigation related to workplace disputes. The ADR program has reduced demand for such litigation by resolving many disputes informally at their earliest stage. This resulted in savings of more than $600,000 in fiscal 2007 alone.

The sum of these disparate strategies has had a unifying result. Since 2004, Labor has reduced official time usage by 37,000 hours, or 40 percent, an average of three hours per bargaining unit employee. The department has been at the vanguard of official time management, decreasing those hours 16 percent from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007. According to OPM data for the same time frame, the government-wide average actually increased by 3 percent. The Labor Department's reductions since fiscal 2004 have saved $1.1 million.

All this was achieved despite factors that increased the demand for official time, such as negotiations of two collective bargaining agreements and midterm negotiations regarding the department's implementation of the President's Management Agenda in key areas such as expanded electronic government and competitive sourcing.

The culmination of the effective use of electronic management systems, strategic contract negotiations, and open minds to alternatives in dispute resolution can optimize the demand for and administration of official time-and demonstrates that seizing small opportunities makes sound fiscal sense.

Patrick Pizzella is assistant secretary and chief human capital officer at the Labor Department.

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