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Guidance on How to Curtail Time Federal Employees Spend Performing Union Business

In May, President Trump issued an executive order that instructed federal agencies to limit the amount of time federal employees spend performing union business instead of public duties. This union subsidy is called “official time.” Its true cost is unknown because of poor recordkeeping, but an estimate by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) found official time cost $175 million with federal employees spending 3.6 million hours conducting union activities. If the administration wants to achieve its stated goal to use tax dollars as effectively as possible, tackling official time should be high on its to-do list.

On July 5, the OPM issued guidance on how best to manage taxpayer-funded official time. The government directive points out that the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which authorizes official time, must be used “only in amounts that are reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.” OPM then observes agencies must monitor official time closely to ensure official time is not used inappropriately. This is crucial because it is a frequent practice for federal employees to take official time without supervisor authorization, this has been reported by the Government Accountability Office on several occasions

New OPM standards for official time use are an about face from the previous administration’s handling of the union subsidy. Whereas the Obama administration viewed official time as a crucial cog in the federal government collective bargaining system, OPM instructs agencies to “view in collective bargaining negotiations that taxpayer-funded union time is not ordinarily considered to be reasonable, necessary, in the public interest, or consistent with effective and efficient Government.” 

Federal agencies are required to make changes to official time policies as soon as possible. This generally will occur when collective bargaining agreements expire. As seen at the Department of Education (DOE), official time reform is possible and achieves significant taxpayer savings. When the union representing DOE employees failed to bargain with the agency in a timely fashion, it allowed the agency to draw up a contract severely curtailing official time.

Importantly, OPM states that agencies should take steps to hold unions accountable for official time use and modify collective bargaining agreements to “ensure that unrestricted grants of taxpayer-funded union time are eliminated and that agencies have mechanisms in place to ensure that employees request and receive specific authorization prior to utilizing taxpayer-funded union time and to carefully monitor taxpayer-funded union time to ensure that it is used only for authorized purposes.”

OPM also notes certain provisions of the E.O. will go into effect soon, on July 9, 2018. Unless they are in direct conflict with current collective bargaining agreements, those provisions will:

  • Prohibit employees from engaging in lobbying activities during official time.
  • Eliminate 100 percent official time and require employees to spend a minimum of 75 percent time on public duties.
  • Bar unions from receiving free government office space, reserved parking spaces, phones, computers, and computer systems. In the alternative, unions will be required to reimburse the government for use of such property.
  • Prohibit federal employees from using official time to receive reimbursements, as they are performing non-agency business.

The OPM also alerts agencies that new rules and procedures are forthcoming. OPM will develop a standard method for agencies to collect and report official time data. The new official time use report from OPM will include greater detail than past reports, like the cost of union office space and total compensation of employees using taxpayer-funded official time.

Predictably, federal employee unions are in hysterics over the E.O. However, taxpayers, the customers of public services, should be the ones outraged that the practice of official time has persisted unchecked for decades. Bottom-line: Federal employees should perform the public duties they were hired to do and unions should use dues money to finance union business.