Decades without standardized federal employee time recordkeeping mean that government evaluations of official time, paid time which federal employee union reps are allowed to use to conduct union activities, are likely inaccurate, stalling actual debate over whether official time policies need to be reevaluated.

“We do have some governmentwide broad datasets and information, but I think that there are some questions about the completeness of that data,” Jason Briefel, executive director of the Senior Executives Association, said in an interview with Federal Times.

“There’s not a governmentwide standard by which agencies are capturing the fully loaded costs of official time. There’s an estimate based on the personnel time, but agencies aren’t necessarily capturing, for example, space utilization, technology, supplies [and such] in a consistent manner.”

The struggles to track official time, which date back decades, create a distorted picture of how time and taxpayer dollars are spent conducting union activities.

The Office of Personnel Management released a report May 17, 2018, that detailed the usage rate and cost of official time to the federal government in FY16.

According to the OPM report, the federal government’s 1.2 million “bargaining unit” employees spent a total of 3.6 million hours performing duties under official time in 2016. Those numbers account for a 1.7 percent increase in bargaining unit employees and 4.12 percent increase in the number of hours used compared to 2014.

Bargaining unit employees are those that are entitled to union representation, regardless of whether or not they choose to join a union.

This distinction is important. Under OPM’s figures, each bargaining unit employee spent 2.95 hours per year on official time, but this does not mean that each employee under a bargaining unit actually spent that time themselves. Rather, union representatives among the bargaining unit employees spent just under three hours of work per employee on behalf of the covered workforce.

This adds another level of data uncertainty. Because different unions cover different types of employees, with some agencies having employees in multiple unions, it is difficult to determine exactly how many federal employees are union members and serve as union representation.

Due to time and resource constraints, OPM must also rely on average data to report the wage cost those hours incur the taxpayer. The agency used the average general schedule pay and benefits of the bargaining unit employees to calculate that official time cost the government over $174 million, though the actual pay of the representatives using that time could make that number higher or lower, depending on where they fall in the pay schedule.

According to the OPM report, the Government Accountability Office said that operating on averages for pay would lead to potentially inaccurate numbers, but OPM does not have the time or resources to calculate the cost for each employee at their specific pay rate.

According to OPM, the 2016 cost is 7.55 percent higher than the cost of official time in 2014, but even that number is a vague accounting of actual costs.

Federal employee pay increased 2 percent between 2014 and 2016 and the cost of premiums for federal health benefits also increased over that time, all adding to the differential between 2014 and 2016 costs.

But what do these numbers mean?

But the OPM Director Jeff Pon, union leadership and members of Congress all disagreed on actual implications of the report’s findings.

“The data shows that taxpayer-funded union time is at a steady increase,” said Pon. “This administration is passionate about protecting hardworking Americans and the use of their tax dollars. OPM will continue exploring opportunities to identify useful practices for monitoring and reporting on the use of official time and sharing these practices with agencies across the government to assist agencies in strengthening internal controls and increasing transparency, accountability and accuracy.”

National Treasury Employee Union President Tony Reardon, however, said that the report confirmed that only a small portion of the workforce uses official time, and that it accounts for labor-management issues in which union representatives are only working to the benefit of all eligible employees.

“Official time saves taxpayer money and is to the benefit of thousands of employees throughout the federal government,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement on the report. He characterized the OPM framing of the report as “undermining the federal civilian workforce.”

The federal government has had problems keeping record of official time usage for decades. GAO reports dating back to 1979 found poor recordkeeping and inadequate requirements for tracking official time, making agency evaluations and negotiations with unions on this topic difficult to address.

“If decisionmakers hope to resolve the question of the extent to which federal agencies use official time and other resources to support employee union activities, better data will be needed,” a 1995 GAO report found.

GAO findings from October 2016, the same year as the OPM official time report, stated that the Enterprise Human Resources Integration data, which OPM used to compile their report, said that poor internal controls over the data increased the likelihood of errors, empty data fields and ineffective monitoring of that data.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has made an attempt at better tracking official time through their new VA Time and Attendance System, which includes distinct codes for official time use. But a January 2017 GAO report found that inconsistent training on the system meant that employees weren’t adequately recording time under those codes.

“If employees in an agency are used to coding it into a certain part of the system, but it’s the wrong part of the system, or it’s disaggregated for some reason from other factors, then you’re not getting that,” said Briefel.

In addition, the VATAS system isn’t scheduled for full rollout until July 2018.

OPM hasn’t been granted the authority to regulate how agencies keep track of official time, though it has offered guidelines that agencies use four categories — term negotiations, mid-term negotiations, dispute resolution and general labor management relations — to record time usage.

“Ultimately, how official time is authorized, monitored and tracked is subject to collective bargaining at the level of recognition in each agency, resulting in various practices on official time internal controls across the Executive Branch,” the OPM report said.

According to American Federation of Government Employees Policy Director Jacqueline Simon, management for each agency agrees to the number of representatives and official time hours to allocate with employee unions. That same management may also call meetings on issues like office moves, training programs or new software with union reps, which they report under official time.

According to Briefel, all the data uncertainties mean that official time measures could be wildly higher or lower than OPM estimates.

“We do think that official time has an appropriate role, and is obviously authorized in statute. But if you don’t have all the pieces of the picture, it’s hard to ensure that an agency is striking that right balance,” said Briefel.