House Panel Assails Official Time, With No Input from Unions

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., says federal employees should not be performing union-related representational activities while on the job. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., says federal employees should not be performing union-related representational activities while on the job. Andrew Harnik/AP

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee decried official time, the practice where federal agencies compensate union employees for representational work, as a waste of taxpayer dollars that “subsidize” federal employee groups’ internal and political work.

But Democrats at the hearing, titled Union Time on the People's Dime, which featured no witnesses from federal employee groups, accused the committee of devising a “union bashing” session and said GOP lawmakers’ assertions were based on faulty numbers and ignore the many benefits of official time.

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Ahead of the hearing, committee staff released a memo on federal agencies’ use of official time, which concluded that in fiscal 2017, “total compensation of all federal employees using any official time was $1 billion.” That figure was vastly higher than one in a recently released report from the Office of Personnel Management, which estimated that the cost of compensation for hours spent on official time in fiscal 2016 was around $174.8 million.

Republicans also decried the number of federal employees who worked “full-time” on official time, which some agencies consider to be at least 50 percent of a fed’s work day while others interpret it to mean 100 percent of their time. The report states that in fiscal 2017, 981 employees spent at least 50 percent of their time on official time, and of them, 221 earned at least $100,000 per year.

Committee Democrats, who said they were not consulted on the GOP report, issued their own memo, calling its findings “fundamentally flawed.” They wrote that the $1 billion figure is intentionally deceptive, and said Republicans are vastly overstating the number of federal union members who spend at least a majority of their workday on official time.

“The Republican staff memo admits that they attributed an employee’s entire salary and benefits in order to invent a completely fictitious total of $1 billion, despite the fact that many employees spend only a fraction of their work time on official time,” Democrats wrote. “The data cited in the Republican staff memo confirms that official time is used sparingly . . . 92 percent of workers who use official time (11,527) do so less than half their working hours. Most users of official time spend the majority of their work time in the professions they were hired to perform.”

At the hearing, Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst with the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, argued that official time is a flawed policy that is ripe for abuse and diverts agency resources from its stated mission.

“One potential reform could eliminate official time and nullify a frequent union argument in favor of the union subsidy,” he said. “Federal unions are required by law to represent non-members who do not pay dues. This can be solved by lifting the legal requirement to represent non-members.”

Bob Gilson, a former federal employee and a part-time contractor for agencies in bargaining agreement negotiations, said he believes agencies underestimate the amount of official time used when they report to OPM, and claimed the true cost of official time is higher “by a factor between five and 10.”

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who has previously introduced legislation to reduce the pensions of some employees who use official time, said federal employees should be doing the job they were hired for, not union-related work.

“This is quite disturbing, and it’s all riding on the backs of taxpayers,” Hice said. “[These people] were hired to do a job, but they’re doing none of that job and instead doing 100 percent union work, while getting paid for the job they were hired to do. Who is doing the work they were hired to do?”

“It’s unknown,” Kovacs said. “Potentially it’s new hires, or there are overtime assignments for employees not on official time, but it’s unclear. Potentially the jobs are not met and the work is not done.”

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution was the sole witness who supported the practice of official time. He noted that in exchange for compensating employees for official time, agencies receive a number of benefits.

“The activities include things such as discussion of grievances, dispute resolutions, labor relations training, new department initiatives, among other things,” West said. “These activities are important for labor-management relationships and they promote a public purpose.”

One principle for which there was bipartisan support was improving how the federal government tracks the use of official time. But while Republicans were focused on tracking only the financial cost of the practice, West and committee Democrats wanted something more akin to a cost-benefit analysis.

“Given the narrative so far in this hearing, with the execption of you [Mr. West] and me, one would assume official time is just a sinkhole, no good comes out of it and it’s all on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s a ripoff,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “Unions are exploiting the taxpayer and not really putting in a full day, or in some cases a day at all. Are there specific benefits that come from official time?”

“There’s great value in [official time],” West said. “Activities on official time save the government money. All efforts to collect better data need to estimate both the costs and the benefits. We all remember that problems at veterans’ hospitals several years ago. That was uncovered because federal employees spoke up.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., accused committee leadership of creating a hearing that is not actually interested in improving official time or how OPM reports on the issue.

“If we’re going to have a hearing that doesn’t acknowledge any possible benefit from official time, that disturbs me and that’s not an intellectually honest enterprise,” he said. “That’s union bashing, and we’re apparently willing to distort facts and make assertions irrespective of the fact that the [1978 Civil Service Reform Act that created official time] passed overwhelmingly.”

In statements, federal union officials condemned the hearing and the Republican staff memo’s suggestion that official time representational work does not contribute to agencies’ missions.

“Official time is not union time,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “We resent the implication that federal employees using official time are somehow bilking the taxpayers or lining the pockets of the unions. The only purposes of official time are to make sure an agency runs smoothly and efficiently, its employees are treated fairly and the taxpayers receive the best service possible.”

The American Federation of Government Employees said in a statement that not only does official time not impede agency operations, it often improves them.

“Gains in quality, productivity and efficiency—year after year, in department after department—simply would not have been possible without the reasonable and sound use of official time,” AFGE wrote. “Official time reduces employee turnover, improves customer service, prevents costly litigation and leads to quicker and more efficient implementation of agency initiatives.”

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