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Policy: Labor

Homeland Security, Energy employees confidentially cashing in on 'official time'

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Photo - In this June 13, 2013, file photo, Border Patrol agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana, Mexico, behind, along the old border wall along the US-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security, which runs Border Patrol, released its union workers from their duties for nearly 208,000 hours in 2012. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
In this June 13, 2013, file photo, Border Patrol agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana, Mexico, behind, along the old border wall along the US-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security, which runs Border Patrol, released its union workers from their duties for nearly 208,000 hours in 2012. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Labor unions,Labor,Homeland Security,Follow the Money,Official Time,FOIA

Federal agencies hide the names of employees they pay to work full-time for labor unions by claiming their right to privacy trumps taxpayers' right to know how the government spends their money.

Federal law allows agencies to provide full civil service pay and benefits to employees even though they work full- or part-time for government unions.

But finding out how many such "official time" employees there are in a particular agency can be all but impossible.

When the Washington Examiner filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy, for example, officials in both cited FOIA's privacy exemption to withhold the names of every official time employee.

Homeland Security released its union workers from their duties for nearly 208,000 hours in 2012. However, since DHS removed all employee names from the documents it gave the Examiner, there is no way to determine how many people used those hours or how many agency employees only do union work.

DHS identified the unions benefitting from about 15 percent of the official time it reported. The Examiner was only able to identify the specific unions benefiting from the rest through Internet searches, other government databases and collective bargaining agreements.

Official time use by federal agencies

Click on the link to view a preview in Google Spreadsheets, and download to explore the document more.

Previously:

Note: These agencies have supplied some or all of the data requested either in databases or through PDF files that had to be converted and cleaned by the Washington Examiner. Revisions to these databases will be made as new information is provided and other agencies will be added to the list once their responses are received, converted and clarified.

That review showed the biggest beneficiary of the release time at DHS is the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.

AFGE-affiliated unions used more than half of the time allowed by the agency in 2012, close to 114,000 hours. The other major union representing DHS employees, the National Treasury Employees' Union, received about 90,000 hours.

About two-thirds of the time allocated by Homeland Security was used by Customs and Border Protection, a division within the agency.

All of the NTEU time came from its representation of CBP employees who do not work for the Border Patrol. Border agents are represented by a separate union, the AFGE-affiliated National Border Patrol Council, which used about 47,000 hours of official time in 2012.

The 10 top officers of NBPC are on full-time release, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the organization. There also are a few locals scattered around the country that have people in full-time release positions.

Other union officials, including shop stewards, can also take official time on a short-term basis, such as being released from their regular duties to represent a union member in a grievance hearing.

The NTEU’s allocation of full-time release positions is based on a complex formula in the collective bargaining agreement with DHS.

Locals representing 275 or more employees get at least one person on full-time release. Chapters with more than 1,000 workers receive at least three full-time representatives on release.

Locals representing more than 1,000 employees receive another full-timer for each additional 400 members, according to the contract.

CBP officials refused to disclose how many employees are on full-time release. NTEU did not return calls to its press office.

Government-wide, union officials were released on official time for 3.4 million hours, costing taxpayers almost $156 million in salaries and benefits in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available from the Office of Personnel Management.

DHS accounted for 171,309 hours of official time in 2011, costing taxpayers $7.8 million in salaries and benefits.

The annual OPM report shows total hours taken from each agency and the cost. It does not identify any individuals or unions.

Those on full-time release at the NBPC spend their time meeting with management to discuss policy changes, representing members in disputes, enforcing workplace safety rules and lobbying for better conditions and laws, Moran said.

The union also views itself as a watchdog of the agency, ensuring management follows its own policies and does not put the public at risk by bending the rules, he said.

“We’ve always described ourselves as a speed bump,” Moran said. “We want them to slow things down and look at it before implementing new policies and then to see if there is a way that things could be done better.”

Moran added that taxpayers benefit from the money spent to keep NBPC executives on official time.

“If it wasn't for the union, the only thing most people would ever hear about the U.S.-Mexican border is that it's secured because that's what the agency and the administration want you to hear,” Moran said.

“Our agency is not very transparent when it comes to how effective we are, and we have tried to bring the light of day in to show exactly what’s going on down there,” he said.

Critics of official time say the unions, not taxpayers, should pay for the hours.

Disclosures by the Department of Energy initially were no better than those of Homeland Security, with all names redacted and unions not identified.

DOE officials eventually provided a breakdown of hours by union and totals taken by individual employees. The agency still refuses to disclose the names of those on full-time release, claiming their privacy interests outweigh any public benefit in knowing who they are.

The Examiner appealed the refusal to provide the names, but DOE would not back down. DOE allowed 11,666 hours of official time in 2012.

Union officials interviewed by the Examiner said they were not consulted about their agency’s decision to keep their names secret and could not explain the reason.

Most of the union locals have their own web sites that post names and contact numbers of their top officials.

“We are not here trying to hide anything,” said Fran Wright, president of the AFGE local that represents engineers, scientists and administrative workers at the Department of Energy's technology center in Pittsburgh.

“I have a union web site that is publicly available, so there is nothing secret about what we do,” Wright said.

Homeland Security employee Hydrick Thomas, president of the AFGE 100 Council that represents Transportation Security Administration workers nationwide, said DHS is not releasing information because it does not want people to know how it allocates full-time release positions to different unions.

The TSA union has two full-time release positions.

“Basically, they don’t want to do it because it would come back on the unfairness of how they disseminate that official time among the different unions,” Thomas said.

Other stories in the Too Big To Manage series include:

- Federal agencies can't track costs, hours of employees working on 'official time' for government unions

- Feds invoke 'privacy' to shield public employees while snooping on the rest of us

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