End the Florida Release Time Scam

A bill moving through the Florida legislature would end a massive taxpayer funded union subsidy. House Bill 13, introduced by Florida House Representative Jayer Williamson, would end the practice of public employees performing union business instead of their public duties while paid by the taxpayer. In just three Florida municipalities, the cost of release time is about $3.5 million annually with public employees spending over 100,000 hours conducting union business.

What is Release Time

Union release time provides public employees with paid time off to perform a variety of union business. Despite the lack of statute that requires public employers grant this union subsidy, numerous Florida municipal employers voluntarily grant government unions release time in collective bargaining agreements. The amount of release time granted and permitted activities vary from union contract to contract.

How Much Does Release Time Cost

Unsurprisingly, Florida public employers do not publicize the cost of release time, as it is a blatant waste of taxpayers’ resources. The only way to find the cost of the union subsidy is to submit public records requests. To shine a light on this wasteful practice, the Competitive Enterprise Institute submitted records requests to three municipalities—Miami-Dade County, the City of Tampa, and City of Jacksonville.

The responsive records were astounding. Miami-Dade County granted the largest amount of release time. In FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, Miami-Dade County employees spent nearly 100,000 hours on release time each fiscal year, at a cost to taxpayers of $3.2 million, $3.1 million, and $2.9 million, respectively.

Even more egregious than the topline figure, a substantial amount of release time pays for government employees who spend 100 percent of their time performing union business. In the past three fiscal years, Miami-Dade County spent over $600,000 per year on 100-percent release time employees.

In the three years examined, City of Jacksonville employees spent approximately 12,000 to 15,000 hours per year on union activity instead of actual government work. This resulted in a direct cost to taxpayers of $399,245 in FY 2014, $341,980 in FY 2015 and $314,677 in FY 2016.

In Tampa, release time cost taxpayers $285,925 in FY 2014, $188,797 in FY 2015, and $366,771 in FY 2016. Tampa public employees spent roughly between 6,000 and 10,500 hours per year in the past three years working on union activities as opposed to the functions of their taxpayer-funded occupation.

What Activity is Conducted on Release Time?

Public records requests also revealed a startling piece of information about what public employees do on release time. None of the three municipalities tracked nor recorded what activity public employees perform on release time. This lack of control and oversight makes it impossible to completely discern what activity public employees are engaging in while on release time. Public employers should know what and where public employees are when they are being paid by the taxpayer. This lack of oversight over release time is unacceptable. 

According to the Miami-Dade County “Leave Manual,” authorized release time activity include participation “in labor management committee meetings, collective bargaining sessions, the processing of an employee grievance, or other activities as specified by collective bargaining agreement.”

However, since the municipalities do not track release time activity, it is impossible to know what these public employees are doing. In other states that do track release time activity, questionable activities can take place.

Several Missouri government unions use release time to lobby public officials, often in favor of legislation that promotes union interests at the expense of taxpayers and employee free choice.  In Texas, public employees spent release time attending retirement BBQs and fishing tournaments. 

How to End Release Time

Florida policymakers have two possible options to eliminate union release time. The simplest mechanism would be for the Florida Legislature to enact legislation that would prohibit release time. If enacted, H.B. 13 would prohibit Florida public employers from ratifying future collective bargaining agreements if it contains release time provisions. 

Another option is for public employers to simply stop including release time in contracts or greatly reduce the amount offered during collective bargaining negotiations. There is no obligation on Florida government employers to provide union release time to government employee unions.

Release Time is a Waste of Scarce Taxpayer Resources

It is past time for Florida to eliminate release time. Government unions are private entities that exist to represent their members. As such, union members’ dues payments should pay for these services. But with release time, taxpayers pay for unions to provide member services without receiving any benefit.

Overall, activity performed on release time serves the interests of unions and they should incur the cost, not taxpayers.

Further reading on release time policy in Florida: