House Republicans passed a bill Wednesday aimed at providing further oversight into a practice that allows federal workers to do union work instead of their jobs.
Federal employees are allowed to do union tasks instead of their regularly assigned work because of a policy known as official time. The workers retain their title, salary, and benefits while doing the union tasks. Federal reports have found official time usage is often misreported because of oversight problems.
The House bill is aimed at fixing the oversight problem by establishing stricter reporting guidelines. The bill requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to submit an annual report to Congress on the use of official time by federal employees. The bill passed and is now moving onto the Senate for consideration.
The OPM found official time cost taxpayers $162 million in 2014. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has expressed concerns over how official time hours are calculated. It found in a 2014 report that current methods underestimate how much official time hours are actually being used.
The bill defines official time as any time granted to a federal employee to perform union representational or consultative functions in lieu of their actual responsibilities. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has been at the forefront of opposing the practice.
“This policy is well overdue,” CEI labor policy expert Trey Kovacs told InsideSources. “Since 1978, when they first codified official time, essentially a year after that Congress held hearings. They’ve had GAO and IG reports saying how agencies aren’t properly tracking and don’t know how much time federal employees are spending on union business.”
Supporters argue that official time allows federal unions to properly fulfill their legally-mandated duties. Federal agencies and unions negotiate official time provisions in their collective bargaining agreements. Federal officials are only allowed to use official time for certain activities like negotiating or filing grievances.
“These legal provisions have produced an efficient and effective mechanism for the fulfillment of the duty of fair representation,” American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox previously said. “Federal employees agree to serve as volunteer employee representatives, and agencies allow them to use a reasonable amount of official time to engage in representational activities while on duty status.”
The CEI has also urged congressional leaders to support a separate bill that would limit official time usage. The Official Time Reform Act prohibits federal employees from conducting political activity on union official time. It also calls for federal employees to lose service credit toward pension and bonuses if they perform union business for 80 percent or more of the hours in a workday.
“Hopefully this passes so they can better evaluate this practice to hopefully eliminate it in the future,” Kovacs said. “At least annually there will be a report that brings attention to this waste in government.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced backlash in recent years over questionable treatment practices. The agency subjected veterans to incredibly long wait times which left numerous veterans dead. The scandal sparked a national outcry when it first broke in 2014.
The scandal was partially blamed on agency employees using official time. The VA spent an estimated $48 million on official time hours in 2014. The GAO conducted a more recent report Jan. 24 which looked specifically at the VA. It found the agency is still not properly tracking official time hours.
The Senate still has to consider the proposal before it can be sent to President Donald Trump to be signed.