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Prohibit Union Official Time during Potential Government Shutdown

A potential government shutdown is looming. To avert a shutdown, House Republicans have scheduled a short term funding bill on January 18. It is unclear whether they have the necessary votes to pass a temporary spending bill to keep the government open.

In the event Republicans cannot secure enough votes, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must reform its “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs” in at least one respect.

Under OPM policy, exempt federal employees who work during a shutdown “serving as union officials may continue to be granted official time to the same extent and in the same manner as they would under nonshutdown conditions.”

This is patently absurd. Any federal employee who remains on duty during a shutdown should perform only public duties, not the private business of their union. While non-essential employees are furloughed and do not receive a paycheck during the shutdown (though they normally receive retroactive pay), some employees deemed essential continue to get a paycheck for doing union business that is unrelated to serving taxpayers.

The practice of union official time allows federal employees to perform union business instead of their civic duties while on the taxpayer’s dime. This amounts to an expensive subsidy to federal employee unions, which cost $162.5 million in FY 2014 with federal employees spending 3.4 million hours on union business.

A change is necessary because during the last government shutdown, federal employees did receive official time.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute submitted a FOIA request to several agencies on how much official time was used during the 2013 government shutdown.

The Department of Transportation allowed 209 employees to perform union activity on official time during the shutdown. They performed union activities for a total of 2,596.31 hours at a cost to taxpayers of $206,290.51. Worse, it is unclear what activity was conducted. Close to 90 percent, or 2,309.84 hours, were used for “General Labor Management Relations,” which has been described as "not working for the taxpayer.”

In a previous post, I provided a breakdown of the FOIA request information:

The least transparent agency was the USDA, which gave its employees 212.50 hours of official time. The USDA redacted much of the other information requested, such as the names, salaries, and activities carried out while on official time, claiming that releasing such information would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and “there is minimal public interest, if any, in disclosing the names, grades, salaries, duty locations.” (No other agency made this claim.)

Within the VA, only the National Cemetery Administration granted 11 employees official time for 62.5 hours at a cost of $1878.13. The NCA did not reveal the activities these official time employees conducted during the shutdown.

The Social Security Administration issued a nominal amount of official time to two employees to represent employees in disciplinary actions. But according to the SSA’s response, two employees were allowed to remain on 100-percent union official time—that is, not conducting any government work—during part of the government shutdown, and nine other SSA employees that are normally granted 100-percent official time were not furloughed.

If a government shutdown occurs, OPM needs to act as a responsible steward of taxpayer funds and prohibit official time use while the government is shuttered.

As I previously commented:

Only in the federal bureaucracy could official time for union activities be deemed an acceptable use of personnel during the government shutdown when federal agencies have to run all essential operations with limited personnel.

Whatever one thinks of official time when the government is functioning under normal conditions, it is unreasonable for government agencies to pay federal workers to perform union functions when the government is in shutdown and taxpayer services need to be performed by a very limited staff.