For decades, federal employees have used working hours to conduct union business, effectively forcing taxpayers to cover the costs of activity unrelated to job responsibilities. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. (in photo), thinks this practice, known as ‘official time,’ is due for an overhaul. On March 26, Hice unveiled the Federal Employee Accountability Act (H.R. 1658). The bill, which has gathered more than 15 House co-sponsors, would bar unionized federal workers from engaging in bargaining or arbitration while on agency time. “After examining the practices of over 60 government agencies,” said Hice, “my office has found an astounding amount of government waste. By eliminating the ‘official time’ practice, we will return over $1 billion to hardworking American taxpayers, and shed this shady, wasteful practice that only benefits unions.”
The use of official time has its roots in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. A section of this Carter-era legislation authorized union-member federal employees to engage in core union functions while on the clock. Over the years, this law has triggered a sizable public cost. Late in 2012, as NLPC noted, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in data leaked to the press, estimated that during Fiscal Year 2011, federal workers spent a combined 3.4 million hours conducting union business at a taxpayer cost of slightly over $155 million. These figures represented respective rises of 11 percent and 13 percent over those of Fiscal Year 2010. Reps. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and Dennis Ross, R-Fla., in the wake of the revelations, criticized the practice, arguing that the primary obligation of federal employees is to the public, not to their unions. While workers have a right to collectively bargain, they don’t have a right to be subsidized for it. Gingrey and Ross also called for more transparency at OPM. A subsequent OPM study, released last October, put its Fiscal Year 2012 estimate at $157.2 million, a slight rise.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, in a report also published in October 2014, concluded that 10 sampled agencies accounted for 2.5 million hours of official time during Fiscal Year 2013, up from around 2 million hours during Fiscal Year 2006. Though the usage rate was slightly down in seven of the 10 agencies during this seven-year period, a combined 386 employees at eight of the agencies in that latter year charged 100 percent of work time to union business in at least one instance. Moreover, said the GAO, the OPM may have underestimated the true public cost by using a less appropriate methodology.
Union leaders defend the practice. They say that payment for official time accounts for a minuscule one-tenth of 1 percent of wages and benefits. What’s more, it enables labor and agencies to jointly address problems, thus saving taxpayers money. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest of all federal employee unions, rationalized last fall: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Official time is less expensive for taxpayers in the long run because it helps resolve conflicts that arise in the workplace without resorting to expensive and time-consuming administration or legal procedures.”
Such a justification, however, assumes that government employee unions serve a public function. In reality, these are private organizations, as much so as any private-sector union. Moreover, by pursuing an adversarial relationship with employers, they effectively force agencies, and taxpayers, to subsidize the costs of collective bargaining. Rep. Hice, in referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs, explained it this way: “At a time when the need for veterans’ health care is at an all-time high, and resources at an all-time low, there shouldn’t be over 200 employees of the VA solely dedicated to promoting union activities, not when our veterans are waiting in line to be helped, and at the very least, not on my watch.” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a co-sponsor of the bill, amplified this view: “While on the taxpayers’ dime, federal employees should not be allowed to spend the entire day, every day, conducting union-related business and not doing the government job they were hired for.”
This isn’t the first go-around for this legislation. Former Rep. Gingrey (he ran unsuccesfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014) two years ago sponsored a similar bill. Passage would send a message to public employee union officials that while they represent their members, their ultimate employer is the general public.