Policy: Labor

Too Big To Manage: Public pays for government unions to lobby for more federal spending

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Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Labor unions,Labor,Follow the Money,Minusextra,Watchdog-Too big to manage

Witold Skwierczynski has not done work for the Social Security Administration for more than 30 years, even though he was paid by the agency as a claims representative the entire time.

Instead, he spends his days on full-time release from his regular job to work for his federal employee union.

The practice is called "official time," a creation of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. It allows union representatives to do exclusively union business while still drawing full pay and benefits from the taxpayers.

Too big to manage

Wall Street banks were described in 2008 as "too big to fail." Is the federal government too big to manage? A four-part series by the Washington Examiner.

Part One: High-cost union officials get their paychecks from taxpayers but spend no time on the job

Today: Union lobbying is bankrolled by taxpayers through official time

Part Three: Union-friendly politicians reap the rewards for protecting official time

Part Four: Powerful unions block transparency, reforms of official time

Click here to see a summary of the series and find more resources

Click here or on the image above to see our infographic on official time

Official time cost about $155.6 million in 2011, the most recent year for which totals are available from the Office of Personnel Management.

Federal employees spent 3.4 million hours working for their unions at taxpayers' expense, the equivalent of more than 1,700 full-time positions.

The only restriction is that official time cannot be used for strictly internal union business like conducting elections or collecting member dues.

Lobbying Congress is permitted. And high on the perennial list of union legislative priorities is killing any bill that would limit official time.

The law does not limit the number of hours an agency can allow. It says union representatives shall be granted whatever time is “reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest,” as determined by agency managers and union officials.

Resolving disputes was the justification most often cited by union officials contacted by the Washington Examiner.

Official time allows workplace disagreements and personnel actions to be resolved informally, before they become more rigid and produce costly grievances and lawsuits. That leads to a safer, fairer and more productive workplace, union representatives say.

But to critics, official time is a pure giveaway of taxpayer dollars to politically powerful unions.

“Effectively, it has the same effect of giving the public employee unions $155 million a year when you are subsidizing staff time like that,” said James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation.

“The core function of the union is supposed to be representation of workers and workplace grievances and negotiating contracts,” Sherk said. “What the federal government does is essentially have the taxpayers pick up the tabs for all those functions.

"That’s what their dues are supposed to go for, but because the taxpayers are picking up the cost of these basic union responsibilities, the unions have far more money freed up to spend however else they want.”

Even many critics concede there needs to be some allowance for union stewards to be released from their regular duties to represent members, though they maintain the unions instead of the taxpayers should pay for that time.

But direct representation of workers is a small fraction of what official time is used for, according to the most recent OPM report, which breaks the hours into four categories.

Dispute resolution accounts for only about 15 percent of the official time used government-wide, according to OPM.

By far the biggest category is the ill-defined “general labor-management relations,” which represents 76 percent of the official time hours used across all federal agencies.

The balance is spent on contract negotiations. Lobbying on official time is legal, though some unions and contracts prohibit it.

Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE-affiliated National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals, says the lobbying he does on official time typically is to push Congress to spend more money on the agency.

More money means more people to process claims. That means shorter waits and better service for those seeking Social Security benefits and services, he says.

“Much of that effort has to do with trying to get Congress to appropriate an adequate budget for Social Security so they can have sufficient staff to do the work that Congress wants us to do,” Skwierczynski said of his lobbying on official time. “I think efforts like that are inherently beneficial to taxpayers.”

He downplays the notion that adding Social Security employees also swells union rolls.

Official time use by federal agencies

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

“That’s not the motivating factor, more members of the union,” he said. “We have to convince them to join.”

Some politically active unions do not lobby on official time. NATCA, the air traffic controllers’ union, is among them, according to spokeswoman Sarah Dunn.

Chris Crane, president of the AFGE-affiliated ICE Council, which represents immigration and customs agents for the Department of Homeland Security, said he does not use his official time when meeting with members of Congress.

“When you see Chris Crane in front of Congress, Chris Crane is on vacation or is adjusting his shift or something where the taxpayers aren’t paying for that,” he said.

Neither Crane nor Skwierczynski, or other union officials interviewed by the Examiner, are registered as lobbyists in the Senate disclosure database.

The law does not limit the number of official-time hours agencies can allow. That is determined in each contract.

Presidents of individual locals are typically on full-time release, as are top officers in regional and national councils, which represent all locals within an agency. Lower-ranking officers in bigger locals often are released for half a year to do union work.

Additional hours are normally allowed to represent individual employees, which is usually done at the local level.

Top officers and staff at national headquarters of the parent unions, such as AFGE, are paid by the union.

While there are no limits, OPM's annual report does gauge the number of hours per represented employee for each agency. Not all employees in a work unit join the union.

The departments of Treasury and Housing and Urban Development allow the most official time per represented employee among major agencies, about seven hours per year on average.

The State Department allows the least, about 0.6 hours, or about 36 minutes, per covered employee.

No agency contacted by the Examiner provided an explanation of how the number of hours of official time is determined, other than to say it is negotiated in bargaining agreements.

There also are hidden costs of official time. Standard contracts require agencies to pay for office space, phones, computers training and travel for union officials taking official time.

While there are no government-wide figures, congressional inquiries have turned up some examples.

In 2012, the Social Security Administration spent $400,000 on travel and $1.1 million on office space for union representatives using official time.

The Internal Revenue Service, which is part of the Treasury, spent $687,400 on travel expenses for union activity in 2012, according to a report to Congress.

The bottom line is that official time and related expenses put taxpayers on the hook for everything the unions need, said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., sponsor of a bill to require more disclosure.

“All those fixed costs that go into maintaining an ongoing organization can be absorbed through expanded official time,” Ross said.

“We are paying them on official time using official resources to lobby us as officials so they can get what they think is due them from this government. It’s kind of self-consuming. You are using taxpayer dollars to lobby for more dollars,” Ross said.

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