Working for the federal government carries an implicit agreement: Employees serve the taxpayers who make their jobs possible. Yet an apparently significant and growing portion of employees are using time on the job to conduct union-related activity. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently estimated that federal workers during Fiscal Year 2011 spent a combined 3.4 million hours on the job conducting union business at a cost of $155 million. These figures represent increases of 11 percent and 13 percent, respectively, over those of Fiscal Year 2010, which in turn were somewhat higher than the figures for Fiscal Year 2009. The numbers were leaked by one or more OPM staffers to the newsweekly Federal Times, which reported them in its November 26 issue. At least a couple members of Congress are disturbed over this. Union officials counter that the issue is a consequence of fiscal austerity.
The Office of Personnel Management is the agency that sets the rules for hiring, promotion, wages/salaries, benefits, grievances and other issues that apply to the current 1.9 million full- and part-time civilian employees of the federal government. This requires a level of oversight that might not be available. Complicating the task is that much of the federal work force – a little over 30 percent – is represented by a union. While federal law long has prohibited these employees from going on strike, it doesn't prevent them from engaging in collective bargaining. That's why the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, among other unions, have played a major role in determining terms and conditions of employment within the federal bureaucracy. Conducting union business takes time. Increasingly, union representatives are spending it on the clock.
Writing in the November 26 issue of the Gannett-owned Federal Times, reporter Andy Medici revealed that federal employees as a whole spent about 3.4 million hours – at a cost of $155 million – conducting union business, alternately known as "official time," during Fiscal Year 2011. In other words, these employees simultaneously were being paid for serving the public and advancing their own interests. The increase in hours over Fiscal 2010 was 11 percent, far more than the 2 percent rise during Fiscal 2010 over Fiscal 2009. In terms of dollar cost, the respective annual increases were 13 percent and 6 percent. Consciously or not, then, federal employees – at least certain among them – have stepped up on-the-job union activity during the Obama years.
This isn't illegal. The Office of Personnel Management acknowledges the right of employees to engage in union business during working hours. "Official time," notes 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 duty status." While union issues consume a very small portion of official time – at most 0.5 percent – observers understandably might be concerned over the rising proportional increase. Angela Bailey, OPM associate director of employee services, hinted as much during a meeting last month of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council though without elaborating why. She did say that detailed figures will be made public in the near future. "When this goes out…we do expect to receive quite a bit of requests from the House in particular and from the media," she remarked.
Two members of the House of Representatives, citing the Federal Times article, already have indicated their objections. In a November 30 letter (obtained by NLPC) to OPM Director John Berry, Reps. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and Dennis Ross, R-Fla., called for more transparency at the agency:
We believe that it is absolutely necessary to ensure that government employees spend their time serving the interests of their employers, namely, the American taxpayer. For this reason, we feel that it is imperative for Congress and the American public to have access to timely and accurate official time reports.
Although the FY 2011 official time report has yet to be released, OPM Associate Director Employee Services Angela Bailey has acknowledged that the amount of official time used in 2011 grew by almost 11 percent, while the cost of official time increased more than 13 percent from the previous year. These statistics only serve to increase the need to access the FY 2011 report.
Under the previous administration, as required by former OPM Director Kay Coles James' memorandum of June 17, 2002, OPM publicly released a report of official time usage by March of the following year. However, in 2009, the OPM report on official time inexplicably stopped. When the FY 2009 report was eventually released, it contained a disclaimer stating, "There are no legal or regulatory requirements to publish official time data. Despite this claim, a report was released for FY 2010, and a report for FY 2011 is purportedly being compiled, as indicated by the Federal Times.
Continued and timely preparation of these reports is necessary to provide transparency of the use of official time and provide oversight of taxpayer dollars. As part of this oversight, we are writing to request that your office produce the FY 2011 official time report, particularly given news reports that compilation of the report is already under way.
Government employee union officials believe that even if such information is forthcoming, the real issue would go unaddressed. William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, an affiliate of the International Association of Machinists, cites tighter agency budgets and cost-cutting practices as the key reasons for the upswing in official time. He cited reductions in force and changes in workplace rules, each of which would prompt union attention regardless of agency. As such, Dougan argued, it would be more cost-efficient to work out these issues in advance, even if on agency time, than to let them drag on during bargaining sessions. "In the federal government, as in most organizations," he said, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Matt Patterson, director of the Labor Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, sees this explanation as a smokescreen for expanding union power. "President Obama brags he has put in place ‘the toughest transparency rules of any administration in history,'" he said. "Yet this OPM report remains unavailable for public scrutiny." While not disputing the right of federal employees to form or join a union, he declared: "(W)hen unions use the government to secure for themselves privileged status and perks, when they use the levers of power to funnel public money into their private coffers, they break a sacred covenant of free government, which works only when and if the law is applied equally and to all."
Unions, even government employee unions, are private organizations. Thus, by engaging in activity to advance union interests while on agency time, union representatives and members are creating a contradiction. They're getting paid to serve the private and the public interest at the same time. This overlap, up to a point, is inevitable. But are federal employees approaching or even moving past that point? If and when the full OPM report comes out, lawmakers should be able to get a better answer.