Republican lawmakers in the Senate sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management Thursday, asking why the agency, which serves as the HR office for all of government, stopped reporting on the time government employees spend performing union duties at work.

Led by Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the letter voices concerns over OPM’s alleged decision to remove reports on how many hours employees spent on this “official time,” which is granted to union representatives for negotiations, resolving disputes or meeting with management. According to the the Federal Labor Relations Authority, it’s treated as paid duty time, and that has led some conservative lawmakers to question the practice.

In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, bargaining unit employees at U.S. government agencies spent a total of 2.6 million hours on official time, a decrease of about 28% from 2016. The report, which started 25 years ago came out more-or-less annually until the mid-2010s and has been published sporadically since then before stopping four years ago.

“OPM appears to have stopped creating official time reports, which have been published since 1998,” reads the congressional letter, obtained by Federal Times. “The American people deserve to know how much ‘official time’ is being conducted and funded by their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”

Other signees of the letter include Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Ted Budd, R-N.C., Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn.

An agency spokesperson said in a statement to Federal Times that “previous reports on official time are not currently available because OPM is reorganizing our website to improve navigation and customer experience.”

The Wayback Machine, an internet archive site, indicates the last time these reports were accessible on the web page was in July. OPM did not say when it would make an updated report publicly available.

Official time

Unions have said official time is an essential protected resource that allows them to be effective and timely when defending employees who have been discriminated against. It also help resolve issues before they balloon into more complicated conflicts, they say.

Official time cannot be used for recruiting members, electing union officers or holding internal meetings. That time is paid for by the government because unions are statutorily obligated to represent all employees, not just those who pay dues.

Regardless of some of the controversy around official time, keeping record of it provides a transparency function for both government and the public, according to a Government Accountability Office report from 2014.

In the report, GAO recommended that OPM consider other methods of measuring official time to establish more representative baselines in lieu of missing or incomplete data by agencies.

At the time, OPM officials said that publishing these reports depends on available resources, staff and other competing priorities, but that agencies have found them to be a useful tool.

“There has been longstanding congressional interest in official time usage as well as some concern about the amount, type, accuracy and timeliness of information available to help ensure an appropriate level of congressional oversight,” the report said.

A hearing was held on the matter in 2018, during which experts from different organizations clashed on whether rules on use of official time have slackened too much and whether there is even sufficient or complete data to get an accurate picture of it.

Official time came under fire during the Trump administration, which sought to establish reporting requirements and time limits on official time via an executive order that was viewed as deeply anti-union.

That order, and others, were eventually revoked by President Joe Biden at the start of his term in 2021.

Consistent with pledges to be “the most pro-union administration in history,” Biden’s agencies have issued a number of memos and deployed resources to the federal workforce to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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