In the summer of 2013, Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser, and current Lieutenant Governor of Florida, Carlos Lopez-Cantera tried to fire an employee who wasn’t showing up for work. Surprisingly, Miami-Dade County legal counsel advised against disciplining the no-show public employee.
Why would a county attorney recommend against holding a government employee accountable for not coming to work? A practice known as union release time, whereby members of government unions don’t come to work and perform union business—on the taxpayer’s dime. The union subsidy is agreed upon in collective bargaining agreements between the union and county government.
The Miami Herald picked up on the story and further investigated the cost of union release time in Miami-Dade County. The findings were staggering, in 2013, over 42 Miami-Dade County employees worked full-time for their union at a cost to taxpayers of $2.65 million. Another 135 employees perform union business on a part-time basis.
After the Miami Herald released the above wasteful government spending, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he would bring up union release time during contract negotiations with the government unions.
In August 2013, Commissioner Esteban Bovo introduced a resolution that would require the Miami-Dade County Mayor and designated bargaining representatives to negotiate for “the elimination or reduction in the number of employees released and paid by the County to perform union duties.”
At a commission meeting discussing his bill, Commisioner Bovo said, “Shouldn’t employees that are doing the union work be paid by the union to do their work? Why does the taxpayer have to front that bill?”
While most taxpayers would agree with Bovo, his fellow Miami-Dade County Commissioners disagreed. Commisoner Bovo’s resolution was amended to only “include the issue of paying County union representatives that perform union duties as one of the items for future collective bargaining negotiations.”
The amended resolution passed, although unnecessary because union release time is always open for negotiation when bargaining over a contract.
Fast-forward to October 2014, and Miami-Dade County finalized a number of new collective bargaining agreements with its government unions. Unsurprisingly, release time is still prevalent in all new contracts covering county employees.
For example, in the agreement with AFSCME Local 199, which represents general Miami-Dade County employees, grants 6,500 hours of release time, annually, to union representatives to attend union functions and process grievances. Employees also are released with pay to negotiate collective bargaining agreements, which is in addition to the 6,500 hours. Last, the contract allows the union president and vice president full-time off to perform union duties.
Another contract, between the county and professional employees represented by OPEIU Local 100, grants 2,500 hours of release time for general union business. Again, two union representatives are allowed to perform union business full-time.
Three other contracts, see here, here and here, generally mirror the OPIEU contract with regards to release time. One variation is that some of the contracts supply employees who work full-time for their union with one hour of overtime pay per week (see, Article 13, Sec. 4).
While it is clear elected officials are not going to stop paying public employees to conduct union business, another solution exists.
Fortunately, Florida’s constitution contains a provision known as the Gift Clause. Article VII, Section 10 of Florida’s constitution states, “Neither the state nor any county, school district, municipality, special district, or agency of any of them, shall… give, lend or use its taxing power or credit to aid any corporation, association, partnership or person.”
Florida’s Gift Clause is clear and straightforward: tax dollars cannot be given to private entities. Release time is nothing more than a gift to government unions and they are under no requirement to do anything in return for the subsidy.
The few commissioners on the Miami-Dade County Board that view release time as a waste of taxpayer funds should use the Gift Clause to legally challenge the expense.
For more on Florida’s Gift Clause and case precedent, see former Law Professor Dale Rubin’s paper, “Public Subisidies to Private Corporations: Stop Violating the Florida Constitution!”