Testimony to Subcommittees on Use of Official time at the Department of Veterans Affairs

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Chairman Meadows, Chairman Arrington, Ranking Member Connolly, Ranking Member O’Rourke, and members of the committees. Thank you for holding this hearing and providing me the opportunity to discuss the issue of official time in the federal workforce. My name is William Kovacs III, and I am a labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization that focuses on regulatory issues from a free market and limited government perspective.


When Congress enacted the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), it determined (in the findings and statement of purpose) that labor unions and collective bargaining in the federal government “safeguard[] the public interest,”[i] advance “the effective conduct of public business,”[ii] and “improve employee performance and the efficient accomplishment of the operations of the Government.”[iii]

It is debatable whether permitting collective bargaining in the federal government achieves these objectives.[iv]  Yet, one component of the collective bargaining system blatantly undoubtedly contradicts the CSRA’s findings.

That provision is known as union official time, which grants federal employees paid time off from their government duties to perform union work.[v] Official time subsidizes federal labor unions to file grievances, negotiate contracts, and even lobby Congress. Unfortunately, a general lack of transparency surrounding the practice makes it impossible to know what specific activities are performed on official time or what its costs are.

Despite official time taking federal employees away from the jobs they were hired to do, the federal government imprudently views official time as a crucial cog in its carefully crafted collective bargaining regime. The fact is that official time is simply a subsidy, costing taxpayers at least $157 million in FY 2012.[vi]

Hundreds of federal employees spend 100 percent of their time performing union activity instead of any public service.[vii] It is impossible for a federal employee who never conducts any public service to promote the public interest, contribute to effective performance of public services, or achieve efficient government operations. Activity performed on official time benefits only labor unions and their members, not the public.

Union activity conducted using official time should be financed with union dues instead of tax dollars. Federal employee unions contend that official time is necessary because the CSRA requires a duty of fair representation, which requires unions to represent both dues-paying members and non-members, and prohibits unions from forcing non-members to pay dues. A better solution than subsidizing federal unions is to release them from the duty to represent non-members and free those employees from working under a union contract.

Union official time is an unwise use of limited tax dollars and serves the private interests of unions. The public does not directly benefit from the use of official time. Congress should eliminate the use of official time. In absence of abolishing official time, greater safeguards against its misuse should be implemented, such as a detailed, annual accounting of the cost and activities performed on official time. 

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[iv] For a general critique of collective bargaining in government, see David Denholm, “Beyond Public Sector Unionism: A Better Way,” Public Service Research Foundation, October 1994, http://www.psrf.org/issues/beyond.jsp#art1.

[vi] Office of Personnel Management, “Labor-Management Relations in the Executive Branch,” October 2014, https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/labor-management-relations/reports/labor-management-relations-in-the-executive-branch-2014.pdf.

[vii] Americans for Limited Government, “Full-Time Official Time: A Special Report Exposing Taxpayer-Funded Union Employees,” summer 2016, https://getliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/ALGF-Full-Time-Official-Time-Report_Final_Binder_06.28.16.pdf