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GAO: Union Official Time Costs Underreported

In October, the Office of Personnel Management released the long-awaited report that estimates the cost and amount of time federal employees spend on union activities while paid as if they were on duty performing government work. OPM's report found federal employees spent 3.4 million hours at a cost of $156 million in fiscal year 2012. The practice is known as "official time" and is codified in the Civil Service Reform Act, which entitles unionized federal employees to take time off from work to conduct a variety of union activity without loss of pay. However, a recent Government Accountability Office report finds that the methodology used by OPM to estimate the cost of official time is inaccurate and underestimates the costs. This comes as no surprise, as I've pointed out a number of times that federal agencies do a poor job tracking, accounting and making public the cost of official time. The GAO report, "Labor Relations Activities: Actions Needed to Improve Tracking and Reporting of the Use and Cost of Official Time," recommends that the OPM improve its methods for calculating the costs of official time. Improvement is necessary because, one, GAO cites that "OPM's cost estimate does not align with best practices." Two, "according to OPM officials, OPM does not know if agencies’ reported official time hours are accurate." Three, "OPM’s cost estimate for official time lacked adequate documentation because OPM could not initially provide a reasonable amount of documentation on its methodology for producing the cost estimate so that a cost analyst unfamiliar with the program could quickly replicate the process and produce the same results." Currently, OPM estimates the cost of official time by "multiplying each agency's average salary for BU [Bargaining Unit] employees covered by official time activities by the agency's total reported official time hours." The estimation has obvious shortcomings, like not using the actual salary of employees that use official time. Using a more reliable, alternative methodology, which used the actual salary of employees that use official time and multiplied this amount by the agency total reported official time hours used by each individual employee, GAO found that the OPM method underestimated the cost of official time. GAO computed the cost of official time using its alternative method at six federal agencies and found that it resulted in an estimate that was about $5 million more than when using OPM's method, $61 million compared to $56 million or 9 percent difference. In addition, at four of the six agencies, GAO's cost estimates were higher by 15 percent. Other interesting findings from the GAO report include:
  • In FY 2013, at just 10 federal agencies employees spent 2.5 million hours on official time.
  • In FY 2013, a total of 386 employees spent 100 percent of their time performing union activity at only eight agencies; another 309 employees spent between 50 and 99 percent of their time on official time.
  • OPM does not report any non-payroll costs associated with official time like travel, office space and telephone service. For example, in 2013, the Social Security Administration reported that non-payroll costs of official time were $2 million.
  • OPM told the GAO that reporting on official time is not a priority at this time.
  • All reported benefits by union and agency officials were intangible and GAO could independently verify them.
In short, official time is a wasteful expenditure that solely promotes the private interests of federal unions and should be eliminated. But doing so is an uphill battle. While legislation has been introduced by Republicans to reduce or eliminate official time, Congress has shown an unwillingness to do so. Even many Republicans have voted in favor of continuing official time. For instance, this past June, 60 House Republicans voted against prohibiting union official time (see list here). Unfortunately, the reasons are clear. One, as Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a proponent of eliminating official time, said in an interview with The Washington Examiner that many elected officials do not want to take on federal labor unions. Two, of the 60 House Republicans that voted in favor of official time, the vast majority received contributions from federal labor unions. Hopefully, in the new Congress can use the appropriations process to defund official time.