Federal employees spent roughly 3.4 million hours — at a cost of $155 million — conducting union business while on duty in 2011, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
The amount of so-called “official time” — time in which federal employees are paid while conducting official union business — grew by almost 11 percent in 2011, substantially more than the 2 percent increase in the previous year, said Angela Bailey, OPM associate director of employee services. She discussed the increase in official time at a meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council this month. The figures will be included in a yet-to-be-released OPM report.
The cost of official time in 2011 increased more than 13 percent from 2010, Bailey said. That’s more than twice the 6 percent in cost increase in the previous year.
Bailey did not offer any explanation for why official time among federal employees increased as much as it did. OPM declined further comment on what might be causing an increase in official time until its report comes out. OPM would not say when the report is expected to be released.
“When this goes out … we do expect to receive quite a bit of requests from the House in particular and from the media,” Bailey said at the meeting.
But tighter budgets and agency attempts to reduce costs are the likely culprits, according to National Federation of Federal Employees president William Dougan.
He said the increase in official time may be the result of new labor-management forums in 2009 and 2010, which allow agencies and unions to work out workplace issues.
He said budget cuts at agencies that include reductions in force and changes in the workplace also prompt more union negotiation and increases in official time.
Dougan said official time allows employees and management representatives to address workplace issues before they become a problem.
“In the federal government, as in most organizations, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Dougan said.
John Palguta, vice president for policy at Partnership for Public Service, agreed that budget cuts and agency attempts to do more with less were at least partly responsible for the increase.“We know that the last couple of years have been stressful times for the federal workforce,” Palguta said.
He said during more disruptive periods, unions will be more involved with how agencies will reduce workforces, consolidate offices and figure out how do accomplish the mission with fewer resources.“I think this change simply reflects that there is a lot going on. Cleary there is a lot of conversation going on,” Palguta said.
The cost of official time to the government was less than 0.5 percent of total spending on federal salaries and benefits, according to the 2010 report.
OPM tracks official time because of high interest from Congress and the public, according to the agency.
Official time can be used for union negotiations, filing grievances against agencies for unfair practices or receiving employee complaints.
Overall levels of official time are bargained between unions and management and depend on the size of the bargaining unit and how many offices an agency has — that dictates the amount of travel that must be done to conduct official business.
Official time has come under fire from congressional Republicans who say the federal government should not be paying for union activities.
“Receiving a taxpayer-funded salary to be nothing more than a political operative for a union organization is inherently wrong,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees federal workplace issues, in a statement last week to Federal Times.
Ross has sponsored legislation that would prohibit the government from paying employees while they are conducting union business.
In his statement to Federal Times, Ross said OPM should require agencies to report on how many employees are splitting their time between work and union work.
A National Treasury Employees Union spokeswoman declined to discuss official time figures until the OPM report is released. The American Federation of Government Employees did not reply to questions.