Official Time: Union Activity on the Taxpayers’ Dime

Government Executive summarizes the Office of Personnel Management’s report on the use of official time, whereby unionized federal employees carry out union business while being paid by the government — i.e. taxpayers. The House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and Labor Policy yesterday held a hearing on the topic, where CEI Labor Policy Counsel F. Vincent Vernuccio testified.

The report, the subject of a Wednesday hearing on Capitol Hill, found that federal employees spent nearly 3 million hours of official time on union activities in 2009 at a cost of $129 million to taxpayers, an increase of $8 million from fiscal 2008. The number of official time hours used per bargaining unit employee on union matters during fiscal 2009, however, decreased slightly from fiscal 2008. “Official time costs represented less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the civilian personnel budget for federal civil service bargaining unit employees,” Timothy Curry, deputy associate director of partnership and labor relations at OPM, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and Labor Policy.

“The dollars spent on official time are minuscule compared to the money saved by having a mechanism in place to resolve disputes in a nonadversarial way and promote cooperative labor-management efforts to increase productivity, improve customer service and reduce the costs of doing business,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said in submitted testimony.

Both the above arguments avoid the question of why taxpayers should subsidize union activities at all.

Curry’s focus on official time’s share of the budget is a moot point. If an activity is not a government function, it shouldn’t get government funding, no matter how relatively small its cost.

Kelley ignores the fact that the federal government already has “a mechanism in place to resolve disputes in a nonadversarial way” that doesn’t require unionization: the civil service system.

So why does this subsidy of union activity go on?

Part of the problem stems from inconsistent reporting. Although employees have used official time for certain union activities for decades, OPM has published reports tracking hours and costs regularly only since fiscal 2002. OPM has worked with agencies to collect the data, but the fiscal 2009 data was just released earlier this month after congressional requests. Curry said the fiscal 2010 report would be available by the end of the year. Ross plans to introduce a bill that would require OPM to submit an annual report on official time no later than March of each calendar year.

Indeed, as CEI’s F. Vincent Vernuccio, who testified at yesterday’s hearing noted:

OPM’s acknowledgment of its not being required to publish the report clearly indicates that at the agency could  discontinue it at its discretion. The need for the report is twofold.

First, taxpayers should be able to know how many of their tax dollars are going to fund official time.

Second, required reporting of official time will allow federal employees to hold their agencies accountable. As OPM rightly notes, “Annual reporting on official time was initiated by OPM to reinforce accountability on the part of both labor and management.”

Congress should also specify the time and manner of the official time report’s publication.

For Vernuccio’s full testimony, see here.