Federal Government Mismanagement and Union Official Time

Mismanagement within the federal government may not be at an all-time high, but it is close. The latest blunder is the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, where VA officials covered up delays in care for veterans.

Last week Kim Strassel had an editorial in The Wall Street Journal that unearths another contributing factor in the VA scandal, which she says is Big Labor’s choke hold on the agency.

Of note, she comments on the prevalent use of the wasteful practice known as union official time in the VA. Official time releases federal employees from their government job to conduct union business on the taxpayers’ dime.

Strassel cites a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) that found

the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Further, in 2013, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wrote a letter to former VA Secretary Eric Shineseki that noted that many VA employees using official time were “nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.”

Unfortunately, the VA is not the only agency that pays federal employees to conduct union business at inappropriate times. Several agencies granted employees official time during last year’s government shutdown.

Prior to last year’s federal government shutdown, the Office of Personnel Management published “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs” on September 30, 2013, which specified that official time was not permitted during the government shutdown. A commonsense policy since only “essential” personnel were to remain on duty due to limited funds, during last year’s 16-day federal government shutdown.

Shortly after OPM issued the guidelines, the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the most powerful federal employee unions, “advised OPM that AFGE disagrees” with the “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs” related to official time. Then on October 4, 2013, the Obama administration altered its “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs” so that federal employees could work on paid official time as union representatives during the government shutdown.

According to documents obtained by my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, through the Freedom of Information Act, agencies did take advantage of the altered government shutdown guidance, which allowed official time use.

Of the five agencies that CEI sent FOIA requests — the Department of Transportation, United States Department of Agriculture, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Social Security Administration — all granted union official time during the government shutdown.

The DOT allowed 209 employees to perform union activity on official time during the shutdown. They performed union activities for a total of 2,596.31 hours at a cost to taxpayers of $206,290.51 over the 16-day period (of which only 12 were work days). Of that, 2,309.84 hours, or 89 percent, were used for “General Labor Management Relations,” which Diana Furchtgott-Roth considers “not working for the taxpayer.”

The least transparent agency was the USDA, which gave its employees 212.50 hours of official time. The USDA redacted much of the other information requested, such as the names, salaries, and activities carried out while on official time, claiming that releasing such information would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and “there is minimal public interest, if any, in disclosing the names, grades, salaries, duty locations.” (No other agency made this claim.)

Within the VA, only the National Cemetery Administration granted 11 employees official time for 62.5 hours at a cost of $1878.13. The NCA did not reveal the activities these official time employees conducted during the shutdown.

The Social Security Administration issued a nominal amount of official time to two employees to represent employees in disciplinary actions. But according to the SSA’s response, two employees were allowed to remain on 100-percent union official time—that is, not conducting any government work—during part of the government shutdown, and nine other SSA employees that are normally granted 100-percent official time were not furloughed.

Only in the federal bureaucracy could official time for union activities be deemed an acceptable use of personnel during the government shutdown when federal agencies have to run all essential operations with limited personnel.

Whatever one thinks of official time when the government is functioning under normal conditions, it is unreasonable for government agencies to pay federal workers to perform union functions when the government is in shutdown and taxpayer services need to be performed by a very limited staff.

Below are the responsive documents from the VA, Department of Transportation, Social Security Administration and United States Department of Agriculture on official time use during the government shutdown:

VA NCA Gov Shutdown Official Time by Trey Kovacs

USDA Gov Shutdown Official Time by Trey Kovacs

SSA Gov Shutdown Official Time by Trey Kovacs

DOT Gov Shutdown Official Time by Trey Kovacs