Biden admin: Taxpayers don’t need to know about ‘official time’

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The Biden administration is actively rolling back transparency requirements for unions, most recently by no longer posting information on the controversial practice of “official time.” That’s when public sector workers are paid by the government to do work for their unions instead of doing any work for taxpayers.

Since Biden took office, no reports on the practice have been made. The Office of Personal Management site that previously hosted the data appears to be defunct. An OPM official told a Dallas Express reporter in August that the site was down for maintenance. OPM did not respond to an email request made by CEI earlier this week for information on the status of the OPM page.

Union members traditionally elect a fellow worker to act as their representative for issues like bargaining contracts or dealing with grievances. This person, usually called a “shop steward,” is expected to do the union activities in addition to their regular job. (In other cases, the union officials are paid through membership dues and work exclusively on the members’ behalf.) The federal government, however, allows the reps to do union work full-time while still technically drawing a government worker’s salary, a practice dubbed “official time.”

A total of 2.6 million work hours were spent by government employees operating on union time, according to a 2019 report by OPM. That was the last report on the issue produced by the White House. Exactly how much that translates into money is hard to calculate since federal workers do not have uniform pay. OPM had prior to 2019 produced regular reports on the amount of “official time” claimed by government workers. In many years the number of official time hours exceeded the 2019 level.

Official time is supposedly a trade-off for public sector unions. These unions sometimes prohibited by law from doing key things that their private sector counterparts are allowed to do, such as striking, if doing so would endanger the public.

The practice is controversial because it means taxpayers are effectively subsidizing a person who is not doing any work for them. On top of that, the union rep’s efforts negotiating for higher pay and benefits for government workers raises the burden on taxpayers by increasing the government’s labor costs. Defenders of the practice contend that having full-time labor officials representing public employees makes resolving union complaints and grievances easier and therefore saves the government money.

Another important factor is that federal transparency rules are frequently the only way rank and file members can get information about their own union’s financial practices.

It’s likely that under the Biden administration, official time use has expanded significantly. One of Biden’s first executive orders was to repeal a Trump-era effort to limit official time. In March, it announced that the number of unionized federal workers had increased by 20 percent since Biden took office. The administration is big on transparency for management on labor issues, however.

Democratic administrations have usually opposed any efforts to make union practices and finances more transparent. The George W. Bush administration, under then-Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, established rules requiring unions to give more detailed disclosure of their finances. The Labor Department obtained 929 convictions and recovered more than $93 million on behalf of union members thanks to the rules change. Hilda Solis, the Obama administration’s first labor secretary, rolled those rules back, arguing that requiring less disclosure somehow helped union transparency.