Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., introduced the bill.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., introduced the bill. Andrew Harnik/AP

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Lawmakers Want to Know Everything About Official Union Time, Down to Square Footage of Offices Used

Democrats call bill that passed out of a House committee Tuesday burdensome and unnecessary.

Federal agencies may soon have to ramp up their reporting on how often employees conduct union duty while receiving a taxpayer-funded salary, with a House committee on Tuesday approving a measure to boost the oversight of the practice of official time.

The bill, introduced in January by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., and passed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would require the Office of Personnel Management to report on official time annually. Agencies would have to supply OPM with the required data by the end of each calendar year, which OPM would then have to aggregate and publish by the following March.

Congress last required OPM to report on official time in 1998, though the agency began doing so voluntarily in 2002. OPM reports with varying regularity on official time data, albeit slowly and with incomplete data.

The agency last released its Labor-Management Relations in the Executive Branch report in October 2014, which included official time data for fiscal 2012. That report found agency employees spent 3.43 million hours on official time that year, up 1.3 percent from fiscal 2011 and costing $157.2 million. An OPM spokeswoman recently told Government Executive the agency will issue its next report “sometime later this year.”

Ross, who has for years sought more reporting both legislatively and by asking for it from OPM, has said his measure would enable Congress to “better account for federal employees’ use of working hours and eliminate wasteful spending.”

Several committee Democrats objected to the bill as an unnecessary attack on organized labor. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said some his colleagues “might have a fundamental misunderstanding of what official time is.” He added the practice serves “the joint interest” of both labor and management, and has been protected in statute since 1978.

Official time allows federal employees to perform functions on behalf of a labor group -- rather than their normal day job -- while receiving a federal paycheck and working in a federal office. In some cases, the employees work for the union full time.

Ross’ bill would require agencies, and later OPM, to report on the total amount of official time granted to employees, the average amount of official time per bargaining unit employee, what specifically the official time was used for, the number of employees using any amount of official time -- including data on how many employees are full time official timers -- and the total compensation provided to employees on official time status. It would also force agencies to describe the offices that are used for official time, including the square footage of each room.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., called the reporting requirements overly burdensome while providing little benefit.

“What would we achieve by knowing that actual location and place where union activity is happening?” she asked. “It is clearly not a waste of a taxpayer dollars when employees are using their rights.”

Last month, oversight committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who on Tuesday praised the legislation as a “sunshine bill,” joined and Republicans on the panel in writing every major federal agency to request similar official time data. In 2015, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced bills in the House and Senate, respectively, to ban official time altogether.

Federal employee unions have long warned against the targeting of official time as an existential threat. The practice, they say, was allowed as a tradeoff for the requirement that the groups represent all employees in their collective bargaining units, whether or not they are union members. Unlike in other sectors, federal unions cannot require workers they represent to pay dues. Official time also comes with fiscal benefits, unions have argued, as it allows for resolution of disputes that arise in the workplace without resorting to costlier administrative or legal procedures.

Official time, the unions say, eases labor-management relations, but does not allow for conduct strictly boosting the labor groups. The statutes governing the practice forbid solicitation of members, internal union meetings, elections of officers and any partisan political activities for employees on official time.

While Republican lawmakers have fought for years to curb official time without success, federal labor groups have feared a Republican-controlled Congress could allow those efforts to finally prevail. To date, however, lawmakers have shown little appetite for such a change. When Hice attempted to eliminate official time for Veterans Affairs Department employees last year as part of a spending bill, the measure was defeated.