Federal employees that serve as representatives for their agency’s official union currently have the right under statute to perform certain union duties while at work in a practice known as “official time.”
But legislation introduced July 26 by Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., would eliminate official time entirely by removing its protections outlined in Title 5 of U.S. Code.
Official time has been a contentious issue in the Trump administration, with agencies moving to renegotiate contracts with labor organizations that include significant restrictions on such time, and a May 2018 executive order officially restricting official time to 25 percent of a federal employee’s working hours.
The new legislation would eliminate the ability to use official time at all.
But employee unions have argued that official time is necessary for protecting whistleblowers, helping employees to file grievances and ensuring the best operation of federal agencies.
Federal union representatives can’t use official time for just anything. The law stipulates that the time must be “reasonable, necessary and in the public interest,” while working in the service of all eligible employees at the agency, not just those that are members of the union.
“All official time is agreed to between the union and management and by law must be reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest,” the American Federation of Government Employees told Federal Times in a statement.
"Official time is not for doing union business. Unions do not hold meetings or elections or recruit members on official time. We work in the public interest to provide representation in cases of worker discrimination, ensure workplace safety, and protect whistleblowers. "
So representatives can use official time to prepare negotiations for a new labor contract or help a fellow employee file a grievance against the agency, but they cannot use that time for activities like collecting union dues.
“Previous proposals to ban official time from the federal workplace have failed because Congress understands that it is a small but important piece of labor-management relations in the federal sector. It is not union time,” said National Treasury Employee Union National President Tony Reardon in a statement.
“It is time spent to improve agency operations and the workplace for the benefit of employees, their managers and the taxpayers they all serve. Federal law expressly prohibits the use of official time for internal union business. Instead, it is used to solve problems in the workplace, and NTEU is opposed to any legislation that would make it harder for employees’ voices to be heard.”
The Office of Personnel Management’s most recent evaluation of official time use, which examines the 2016 fiscal year, found that approximately 2.95 hours of official time are used per bargaining unit employee in the federal government, which cost the government over $177 million in salary expenses.
“This bill will end the outrageous payment of tax dollars to union officials pretending to be government employees,” National Right to Work Committee President Mark Mix said in a statement.
“Labor unions are private organizations pursuing their own interests — not taxpayers’ interests. As such, Big Labor should have no more influence over government policy than any other private entity. They certainly shouldn’t be collecting government paychecks for non-government work.”
But, according to experts, the evaluation of official time use and its costs is unlikely to be totally accurate, as different agencies have different mechanisms for recording that time. There is also no official cost-benefit analysis for how much official time use has saved the government by uncovering waste, fraud and abuse or mediating otherwise expensive grievance proceedings.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.