Official Time Reform Underway

Jul 24, 2018 - 10:15am

Senior Manager, Research Policy, Labor, Immigration & Employee Benefits

On May 25, 2018, President Trump signed Executive Order 13837, Ensuring Transparency, Accountability, and Efficiency in Taxpayer-Funded Union Use Time, which limits the amount of so-called “official time” spent by federal government employees on union business to no more than 25 percent of their work hours.  Nearly two months after being issued, government agencies reportedly have wasted little time implementing it, and union leaders aren’t happy. 

As this blog has observed in the past, the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) enshrined official time into the law under the dubious premise that it somehow increases government efficiency.  In reality, official time allows federal employees performing certain union representational activities, such as negotiations and handling grievances—sometimes for 100% of their work day—to be paid by taxpayers.

The CSRA grants the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) the ability to determine the circumstances under which agencies are required to pay official time and limits the amount of official time to “any amount the agency and the exclusive representative involved agree to be reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.”  Unfortunately, though, over time the FLRA has taken an expansive view of what might be “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest,” and favored instead what is really in unions’ interest.   

In essence, the FLRA’s loose standard has provided government agencies the ability to make official time a taxpayer-funded subsidy for unions.  Indeed, in its fiscal year 2016 report, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management stated that in that year over 3 million hours and $174.8 million had been spent on official time, a figure that could be absurdly low.  A congressional staff estimate pegs the actual cost to taxpayers at approximately $1 billion.

Needless to say, each dollar spent on union business is one that could be used to improve the government’s services instead.  For example, the Social Security Administration estimates it could complete 135,000 more retirement applications or 17,000 more disability determinations annually if taxpayer funding for union activities were redirected to public service functions.  Likewise, according to the White House, more than 470 federal employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spend 100 percent of their duty hours working for a labor union rather than serving veterans. That number includes 74 full-time nurses working for the union but receiving pay and benefits from the federal government.

As anticipated, the main beneficiary of official time, the American Federation of Government Employees has sued to contest the executive order on the basis that it violates the free association clause of the First Amendment and exceeds the president’s constitutional authority.

Nevertheless, government agencies have begun implementing the president’s executive order to ensure the federal government is acting as a good steward of taxpayer dollars, prompting vociferous complaints of “chaos” from union leaders.  That “chaos” should be the result of returning to work speaks volumes as to what the cozy “official time” scheme is really about

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Senior Manager, Research Policy, Labor, Immigration & Employee Benefits