Official Time: Officially Outrageous

Would you be upset if you learned that your local tax dollars were funding a rival sports team in another state? Of course, but that, thankfully, is far-fetched proposition. (Unfortunately, your local tax dollars may well be subsidizing a professional sports team in your state.)

But what if you learned your federal tax dollars were being spent funding an organization you don’t belong to, and which may have a political agenda you vehemently disagree with? You’d be steamed, of course. Unfortunately, unlike with the sports analogy, this is exactly what is happening with so-called “official time.”

“Official time” refers to the process by which a union worker conducts union business while on the job. When it comes to government employees, that means you and I are paying for union members to do union business when they are supposed to be doing our business.

Official time is a great deal for unions; it amounts to massive government subsidy, though it rarely gets listed — or even thought of — as such. And it’s only getting worse; according to a new, as-yet-unreleased study from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in 2011 federal employees spend nearly three and a half million hours doing union activities while on duty, adding up to a loss of productivity that cost taxpayers some $155 million. The Federal Times reports:

The amount of so-called ‘official time’…grew by almost 11 percent in 2011, substantially more than the 2 percent increase in the previous year, said Angela Bailey, OPM associate director of employee services. … The cost of official time in 2011 increased more than 13 percent from 2010, Bailey said. That’s more than twice the 6 percent in cost increase in the previous year.

Not surprisingly, OPM is being coy about when the new report will be “officially” released. But Reps. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) and Phil Gingrey, (R-Ga.) are not content to sit around and wait. The lawmakers are calling upon OPM Director John Berry to expedite the study’s release:

The lawmakers — who have sponsored legislation that would prohibit the government from paying employees while they are conducting union business — said that OPM should release its annual report now. ‘Continued and timely preparation of these reports is necessary to provide transparency of the use of official time and to provide oversight of taxpayer dollars,’ they wrote.

Quite. Unfortunately, the problem is not exclusive to federal employees. State and local governments all across the country also allow workers to labor for union bosses on taxpayer time, at an incalculable cost. Part of the problem, as Mallory Factor noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, is that “states and municipalities don’t generally track official time for their employees, much less disclose it, so data on the subject are hard to come by.” However, Factor hazards an educated guess as to the extent of the problem:

…based on the total number of unionized workers at all levels of government and the reported levels of official time in the federal government from 2010, we can estimate that American taxpayers are paying for some 23 million total hours of official time every year, at a cost of more than $1 billion. And that doesn’t include free government office space, equipment and services used by union officials.

No one disputes the right for workers to band together to form a union. But when unions use the government to secure for themselves privileged status and perks, when they use the levers of power to funnel public money into their private coffers, they break a sacred covenant of free government, which works only when and if the law is applied equally and to all.