Federal Government Underreporting Union Official Time

In a recent FedSmith.com article, author Robert Dietriech gives three reasons why union official time data collected by the federal government understates the extent of the practice.

Before getting to Dietreich’s observation’s, here is a quick summary. Union official time allows federal employees to receive paid time off to perform union activities unrelated to their government responsibilities. The Office of Personnel Management inconsistently releases a report called, “Official Time Usage in the Federal Government,” which partially tracks the cost of union official time.

According to OPM’s last report on the cost and time used on official time for 2011, federal employees spent 3.4 million hours on union activities, an increase of nearly 300,000 hours from 2010. That cost taxpayers $155 million in salaries and benefits, up $15 million from the 2010 report. But this is a lowball figure because OPM does not include the cost of travel, per diem, arbitration, offices, or supplies.

Dietriech, a 37-year veteran in federal human resources and resources management, provides more rationales for why government reports on union official time are understated:

When it comes to official time, management adopts a very laissez faire approach to enforcing contract provisions on its use because, like electricity, human behavior will always take the path of least resistance.  Trying to enforce contract provisions on official time will always invoke a struggle with the union, and management would rather have labor peace by surrender.
Secondly, labor relations specialists in human resources offices, who are very experienced, are retiring at a rate faster than their replacements can acquire the training and strategic/tactical experience to be proficient. I was recently conducting a two-day labor relations seminar for a couple of federal installations whose local LRO’s advice in both organizations on a major area was completely wrong.  Following this advice would have put senior management in a disadvantageous position.  One person in the class using her smart phone went out to the union’s website and found that its guidance on the topic was exactly the same as what I had just presented.

And third, unions are also very conscious that the increasing amount of official time is garnering the interests of Congress.  Thus, the amount of time being reported is conservative and does not include all of the hours these officials use.

In addition, WorkplaceChoice.org via a FOIA request and another government report have found evidence that OPM official time figures are inaccurate.

Responsive data from a WorkplaceChoice.org FOIA request for 2011 Social Security Administration union official time cost and time shows that SSA employees spent 229,107.25 hours on official time at a cost of $8,865,395.92 in salary and $2,155,115.25 in benefits, a total of $11,020,551.17. In addition, 1,410 SSA employees were granted official time in 2011 (OPM does not provide the total number of employees).

According to OPM’s report on official time for 2011, SSA employees somehow spent more hours — 229,195 — on official, but at a lower cost — $7,248,953.01 salary, $2,664,715.13 benefits — for a total cost of $9,913,668.14. That represents over a $1 million discrepancy in the SSA official time cost.

See SSA data below:

In addition, as I noted in a Washington Examiner article:

research done by the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s labor policy team has unearthed a report from the Social Security Administration (available on Workplacechoice.org) that contradicts OPM’s official time costs for that agency.

There appears to be an approximately $2 million discrepancy in the cost of employees’ salaries and benefits for official time in fiscal 2011 reported by OPM and the SSA.

According to the 2011 Social Security Administration’s “Report on Expenditures for Union Activities,” the dollar value of employees’ compensation for official time is listed at $11.2 million and time spent on union business at 229,195 hours.

OPM reports the same number of hours in its report, “Official Time Usage in the Federal Government,” but states that they only cost the SSA $9.9 million in salary and benefits.

That discrepancy alone amounts to more than $1 million. If the cost of travel, office space and arbitration expenses incurred by the public for federal employees on official time were included (OPM does not report these costs), the difference between the reports jumps to approximately $2.8 million.

(See SSA’s Report on Expenditures for Union Activities, here.)

All three separate government sources gave differing numbers regarding the cost of SSA employee official time. This is unacceptable, but with the current makeup of Congress, the likelihood of eliminating the union privilege of official time is little to none.

However, better reporting of the union subsidy is needed and should have bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans should want accurate reporting of how tax dollars are spent. A bill sponsored by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., Official Time Reporting Act (H.R. 568), would do just that. The Official Time Reporting Act would require that the OPM submit an annual report to Congress on official time. The official time report would include data on the total amount of official time used by federal employees, the specific types of activities or purposes for using official time, the impact of official time on agency operations, the total number of employee who were granted official time, and the amount of 100-percent official time employees.