Federal employee unions enjoy a government subsidy known as “official time” that enables union members to perform union duties while being paid by the taxpayer. During the Obama administration, the costs of the subsidy were rarely reported. At the end of Obama’s presidency, the latest available official time data was from fiscal year 2014.
Today, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released a new report: “Official Time Usage in the Federal Government Fiscal Year 2016.” In 2016, official time cost approximately $175 million and federal employees spent 3.6 million hours conducting union business. This represents about a $12 million increase in the cost of official time from fiscal year 2014, with federal employees spending nearly 200,000 more hours on union activities instead of public service.
But as the OPM report rightly notes, the official time costs presented are far from accurate. As I’ve noted in the past, OPM only reports payroll costs—salary and benefits. However, there are non-payroll costs associated with official time that many agencies do not track or report to OPM. For example, contracts between federal employee unions and federal agencies frequently require taxpayer funds to cover the cost of office space, travel, and supplies for federal employees using official time.
The Social Security Administration does report these non-payroll costs:
In FY 2015, the value in salary and benefits was $13.2 million. The SSA report also calculates the cost of travel and per diems, office space, telephones, supplies, interest, and arbitration expenses associated with official time. These extra costs add up to $2.2 million, 15 percent of the agency’s total official time cost. If non-payroll costs at all other agencies equaled 15 percent, it would increase the total costs of official time in the federal government by $23 million.
The costs of official time reported by OPM are underestimated in another way. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the methodology used by OPM to estimate the cost of official time is inaccurate. According to the GAO report, OPM estimates the cost of official time by “multiplying each agency’s average salary as reported in EHRI [Enterprise Human Resources Integration] for BU [bargaining unit] employees covered by official time activities by the agency’s total reported official time hours.” Using a more sound methodology that uses the actual salary of employees using official time, GAO found official time costs are about 15 percent higher than the OPM cost estimates at four of the six agencies it examined.
It is promising development that the Trump administration is reporting official time costs. The public has the right to know how tax dollars are spent and how federal employees spend their time.
However, official time represents a massive and unnecessary subsidy to federal employee unions that serves the interests of unions and their members, not the public. Congress should seek to eliminate official time and ensure public employees perform the work they were hired to do.