Policy: Labor

Too Big To Manage: Federal agencies can't track costs, hours of employees working on 'official time' for government unions

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Big federal agencies cannot account for thousands of hours they pay employees to spend working for government unions at taxpayer expense.

Top users of what is known as “official time” have been unable to produce records documenting basic information on who was allowed to work for the unions while drawing full pay and benefits from their regular government jobs.

The Washington Examiner requested data on the use of official time in November 2012, including names, duty stations and salaries of those who did the union work, as well as the labor organization that benefited from the time.

Of the 17 agencies surveyed, six failed to produce any information. Among the others, only four delivered fairly complete records.

The rest either supplied partial tallies, or withheld critical information, including names of employees and union beneficiaries.

Official time cost taxpayers more than $155.5 million in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available from the Office of Personnel Management.


That is a 12-percent increase from the year before. Nearly 3.4 million hours were spent by federal employees in 2011 performing union duties, the equivalent of more than 1,600 full-time workers.

The 17 agencies surveyed by the Examiner account for about 95 percent of the government's 2.1 million employee workforce and 80 percent of federal spending.

“If they’re not tracking it, it says they don’t care very much, and that’s a bad message to send,” said Steve Cohen, author of "Mess Management: Lessons From the Corporate Hit Man" and a labor-management relations consultant.

“If they are not tracking it and they are not focused on the time their employees are spending on union activity, that tells me they’ve fallen into ‘look government, you just pay them and we the union will tell them what to do,’” said Cohen, president of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc., in Kansas City, Mo.

“If that’s the case, then you’ve got the tail wagging the dog,” Cohen said.

In federal law since 1978, official time allows agencies to release employees from their regular duties to perform union work while drawing full government salaries and benefits.

Collective bargaining agreements dictate how much time is allowed. The only restriction in the law is it cannot be used for internal union business, such as conducting elections. Lobbying for higher pay and more generous benefits, or bigger government budgets and staffs, is permitted.

OPM compiles an annual tally of hours and costs based on information voluntarily provided by agencies. Some in Congress question the numbers, especially since so many agencies struggle to document the use of official time when pressed.

Official time use by federal agencies

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

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.

“They don't account for the time of the employees, so how do we know that we are getting anything out of these employees?” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who sponsored a bill requiring more detailed disclosures from agencies on the use of official time.

“They should be keeping track of their official time,” Ross said. “If not, the taxpayers are being taken advantage of.”

Ross’ bill would require annual disclosure by agencies of total hours used, the number of employees who took official time and the number of employees who are paid by the government to work full time for their union.

It would not require the name of the union be disclosed, something Ross said he deliberately kept out of the bill because he knew it would stiffen federal employee union opposition.

Even with the minimal disclosure requirements, Ross said the unions have already targeted his bill for defeat, and its prospects are dim even in the Republican-controlled House, where leadership is reluctant to cross organized labor.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has a companion bill in the Senate, where he expects it will be ignored by the Democratic majority that controls the chamber.

Both Coburn and Ross believe official time wastes taxpayer money, and that union dues ought to pay top officials in federal employee unions, not the taxpayers. At a minimum, the use of official time should be tracked and disclosed, they say.

“Transparency is the one thing that keeps the government honest and instills confidence in the American public,” Coburn said. “We ought to be doing everything we can to instill confidence by being completely transparent.”

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is the biggest user of official time, both in cost and hours. VA employees used nearly 1 million hours for union business in 2011, costing taxpayers more than $42.5 million.

VA provided the Examiner lists of 273 individuals it identified as being on 100 percent official time from 2012 through February 2013.

Virtually all of them are employed by the Veterans' Health Administration, which provides health care. Nine work for the Veterans' Benefits Administration, which processes disability claims.

The primary beneficiary of official time at VA was the American Federation of Government Employees, with 243 agency employees released from their regular jobs to work full time for that union. AFGE officials refused to comment.

At least 19 of the VA union workers were paid more than $100,000 annually, not including benefits. The highest paid among those whose salaries were disclosed was Patricia LaSala.

A nurse with the VHA in San Francisco, LaSala worked full time for her union, the National Federation of Federal Employees. Her government salary was $131,849.

VA provided virtually no accounting for employees released on official time on less than a full-time basis. That amounts to nearly half of the hours reported to OPM even if all of the full-time release positions are counted at a full 2,080 hours, the standard work year.

VA officials would not agree to an interview. They issued a written statement saying VA does not track information about those on part-time release to the level of detail sought by the Examiner.

“The number of union representatives, including those on 100 percent official time, is partly driven by the size of the agency and the complexity of the work,” said agency spokeswoman Josephine Schuda.

VA employs about 332,500 people, the most of any civilian agency.

Beyond VA, some of the biggest users of official time have yet to produce any data. Among them are the departments of Defense, Justice and Agriculture.

Non-responsive agencies used a combined total of 734,000 hours of official time in 2011, costing taxpayers more than $30 million, according to OPM.

Even among many of the agencies that provided records, disclosures were minimal. The Treasury Department, for example, delivered responses from six of its eight divisions.

The Treasury totals for 2011 are 15,275 hours, far short of the 625,704 reported to OPM. Treasury is the second largest user of official time, behind VA.

The Internal Revenue Service, a Treasury bureau, produced no data. In June, Americans for Limited Government obtained a list of 202 IRS employees who are on full-time union release.

The group is a conservative nonprofit activist organization.

Names and unions are missing from that list, which does show salaries as high as $131,343 paid to IRS employees doing full-time union duty.

IRS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Nathan Mehrens, president of ALG, said he is “dumbfounded” that big federal agencies cannot fully document release time, particularly since they are supposed to track some of the information for OPM.

“It’s not like you are asking them to do something that’s impossible,” Mehrens said. “Why they are having difficulty finding it is inexplicable to me.”

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