Policy: Labor

Too Big to Manage: Taxpayers fund top-dollar federal employee union reps through official time

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Phil Barbarello insists his federal salary has nothing to do with his job as a top union official. What matters, he says, is his experience as an air traffic controller.

But it has been years since Barbarello, eastern regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, spent much time monitoring flights in a control tower.

His full-time job with the Federal Aviation Administration is working for the NATCA union, and has been since at least 2009.

As for his salary, $166,362 in 2012, that and his lucrative federal benefits are all paid by 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.

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

Part Two: 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

Barbarello and hundreds of other federal employees are released from their regular jobs to do union work under what is known as “official time.”

Allowed in federal law since 1978, official time cost American taxpayers an estimated $155.6 million in 2011, the most recent available year, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, which manages the government workplace.

Union representatives spent about 3.4 million hours doing union work while drawing their regular paychecks from the government.

Barbarello refused to discuss his job with the union or his paycheck from the government.

“My salary has nothing to do with official time,” he said when contacted by the Washington Examiner. “It has to do with my longevity as an air traffic controller. Obviously, you are on a witch hunt.”

Then he hung up the phone.

Air traffic controllers are not the only highly paid federal employees exclusively doing union work. There are nurses and pharmacists at the Department of Veterans Affairs, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, judges at the Social Security Administration and lawyers scattered throughout just about every agency.

It's a waste of taxpayer money, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has struggled for years to get answers from agencies about official time spending and has co-sponsored bills to limit the practice.

“I just don’t think the federal taxpayers ought to be paying for that,” Coburn said. “That’s what union dues are for. What’s irksome to me is that we are paying someone to be a pharmacist or a nurse, but they’re not doing that. They’re doing union work.”

The annual OPM report provides no information about who is using official time or which unions benefit. To find those details, the Examiner filed Freedom of Information Act requests to 17 of the biggest users, which account for about 94 percent of the cost of official time.

Some agencies could not or would not provide any information, including the departments of Defense and Justice, two of the most prolific and costly users of official time.

Others could only provide limited data, or lists of those on full-time union release. Among them are the Department of Veterans Affairs, the biggest user of official time both in terms of hours and cost, and the Department of Labor.

The Internal Revenue Service, part of the Treasury Department, says it is still working on the request, filed in November 2012.

But the Examiner obtained a list of its full-timers previously provided to Congress and the conservative nonprofit activist group Americans for Limited Government.

Based on the available disclosures, the Examiner identified more than 700 federal employees who spent at least half of their time working for unions rather than performing their government jobs in 2012.

That figure includes 558 who spent more than 1,500 hours annually on official time, which means they did little, if any, work for their agencies, and 150 who spent at least 1,000 hours annually on union release.

Another 232 federal employees spent at least 500 hours — about a fourth of the year — doing union duties instead of government work.

A standard work year is 2,080 hours, minus any holidays and vacation, according to the Department of Labor.

The Veterans Affairs department had 271 employees on full-time union release, the most of any agency. The IRS had 201.

The government-wide totals for large users of official time derived by the Examiner are lowball figures since many agencies either did not disclose any information or listed only those on full-time release.

But judging by agencies that did fully report their time, those in part-time positions make up big blocks of union hours.

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.

For instance, the Social Security Administration, which accounted for its official time use, lists nine people taking at least 1,500 hours, 63 who took between 1,000 and 1,500 hours, and another 91 who took at least 500 hours.

Similarly, the Department of Transportation, which includes the FAA, has 18 people on full-time release and 80 who took between 500 and 1,500 hours.

Many employees on official time are in high-paid positions, as the Examiner identified 162 individuals who spent at least 1,000 hours on official time while drawing taxpayer-funded salaries in excess of $100,000.

There may be others, for instance at the lawyer-heavy Department of Justice, which provided no documents.

DOT and the IRS accounted for most of those top-paid workers, with 45 each. VA had 20 and the Environmental Protection Agency 15.

Barbarello and two other NATCA officials, Dean Iacopelli and Kevin Maney, are the most expensive, with their $166,362 annual salaries.

Of the 25 highest-paid officials taking at least 1,000 hours of official time in 2012, 13 are NATCA representatives making more than $146,500 per year.

Barbarello also draws an annual salary from the union of $21,000, according to NATCA's 2012 annual disclosure report filed with the Department of Labor, the most recent available.

In addition, the union paid Barbarello $448,884 in reimbursements for expenses such as business-related meals, hotel rooms, travel and other incidentals.

NATCA officials refused to disclose specific details of what the money was used for and details are not included in the union's report to the Labor Department.

Sarah Dunn, a NATCA spokeswoman, said reimbursements to officers are for expenses incurred both in official time duties and while conducting internal union business.

“Any expenses they incur while using official time are vetted and approved here at NATCA before they are reimbursed with union funds,” Dunn said.

Also high on the list of top-paid union representatives are eight administrative law judges employed by the Social Security Administration, deciding claims for disability benefits.

The judges are all officials with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. All were paid between $164,000 and $165,300, and spent more than 1,000 hours working for the union instead of deciding cases.

William Wenzel, one of the top-paid judges, declined comment and referred questions to another judge, Duncan Frye, who did not return phone calls.

That was a typical response.

None of the agencies contacted by the Examiner would discuss official time in an on-the-record interview. Those that did respond sent brief written statements that did not explain in detail how hours are allocated.

National union representatives were a little more forthcoming, though none would agree to an interview.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the second-biggest beneficiary of official time that was disclosed, released a statement saying the hours are used to represent federal employees on issues involving workplace conditions.

“Official time is subject to negotiation and is approved by management and is used, for example, when employees/union representatives participate with management in work groups to implement new workplace initiatives designed to enhance service to the public,” Kelley said.

The Examiner documented almost 700,000 hours of official time taken by NTEU employees in 2012, including all IRS workers, which is about 35 percent of the 2 million hours disclosed to the Examiner.

The biggest beneficiary of official time, the American Federation of Government Employees, would not comment. AFGE members used about half of the official time disclosed to the Examiner, 948,619 hours in 2012.

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