Tense Days for Union Time on the Taxpayer Dime
Elizabeth McDargh earns a six-figure salary and generous benefits as a senior environmental officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But she’s the first to admit that on some days she spends little time doing any environmental work.
She is not alone. Although no one in government even keeps track, thousands of such federal employees do not do their stated jobs. The IRS alone was reported to have more than 200 such employees, according to documents.
That is not to say they aren’t busy. Many spend long days, and even weekends, performing union-related work: filing grievances, bargaining, negotiating contracts and the like – all on the public’s dime. It is estimated that this cost American taxpayers $162.5 million in 2014.
This practice – known as “official time” – is coming under renewed attack by Republicans in Congress who see it as wasteful and inefficient, and who have undoubtedly noticed that unionized federal workers tend to align with Democrats. They argue that if employees like McDargh did the work they were hired to do, the federal government would do a better job too.
One bill, which passed the House on May 24, would require an annual report to Congress on the use of official time by federal employees. The second piece of legislation, awaiting a floor vote, would disincentivize union work by curbing time credited toward retirement for those who work on union matters more than 80 percent of the time.
“Federal employees are free to engage in union activities on their own time, and they are free to use union resources and dues to fund those activities,” that bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican, told RealClearInvestigations. “However, taxpayer dollars should be used for public, not private, needs. Simply put, paying federal employees to do union work interferes with providing the services that taxpayers deserve.”
Union official time on the job has been allowed since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. And government workers do not consider it a boondoggle. If taxpayers feel abused by an imperious federal bureaucracy, how do you think they feel working at the whims of a sprawling, 2.7-million-strong Leviathan? Because federal employees need representation, they say, official time may be the best way to handle union matters expertly and efficiently.
Lee Stone, a scientist at NASA and vice president for the Western Federal Area of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, calls Hice’s bill “mean-spirited” because it punishes workers for engaging in government-approved activity.
“Either it’s okay to do this or it’s not okay to do this,” Stone said. “But to say: ‘You’re doing something that your management has agreed you should be doing, that was negotiated with your management, that was being done completely lawfully [yet] you’re going to lose part of your pension.’ As I said, that’s just mean; it’s nasty.”
Stone said he would rather spend all his time doing the scientific work he was trained and hired to do: improving aerospace systems as a member of NASA’s Human Systems Integration Division.
“Nobody comes to NASA to be a union official -- that is not why we’re here,” Stone said. But he, like other government workers, “found at some point or another during our careers that there were obstacles to doing our job as well as we thought it needed to be done,” he said.
That’s what happened to Elizabeth McDargh. She began working for HUD during the George W. Bush administration and was offered a position as environmental officer, which she thought sounded interesting. A week later, she said, her job description was changed and she was forced to do secretarial work.
“How could you do that?” she remembers asking. “How could you change my duties after I had accepted the job?
“And I just started asking questions and found out there was a union and I also found out there had been a multitude of employees who had the same thing happen to them.”
In trying to rectify her own situation, McDargh became good at understanding contracts and guidance documents. Her co-workers took notice and started asking her to help them with their own grievances, and she was elected to represent them as part of the union. Today, she is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1450, which paid her $8,555 in 2016 for union work, according to an annual filing by the union with the Labor Department.
Official time exists in the private sector, but public sector unions are required by law to represent all workers, whether they pay dues or not. Representing them takes time and effort, a big rationale for paying union representatives for official time.
The American Federation of Government Employees has about 310,000 dues-paying members, who pay $14-$16 in dues (tax-deductible) per pay period. With 26 pay periods a year, that amounts to about $120 million a year in dues. The union, however, represents 700,000 government employees.
A government report released in March found that in 2014, taxpayers spent $162.5 million for nearly 3.5 million hours of union work by federal employees. That amounts to the pay of more than 2,000 workers at the average full-time salary and 100 percent of full-time hours for more than 1,600 employees. The number of hours worked had increased 20 percent since 2008, and the amount paid by taxpayers increased by $5 million since 2012.
Those numbers are not as precise as they sound. In fact, a lack of detailed recordkeeping has always shadowed the practice. In 1979, just one year after official time was recognized by law, a government review of 26 agency units “found that over 70 percent of these units do not keep records on this time even though they are required to do so by Federal regulation.”
This January, the Government Accountability Office found significant problems with the tracking of official time at the Department of Veterans Affairs, long derided as a poster child for government waste and ineptitude. Although the VA adopted a new “time and attendance system” in 2013, three of the five facilities GAO investigated reported having received no training in how to use the system to track official time.
“At the VA, a lot of the submitted data on official time [shows] they use surveys and estimates to figure out how much time was actually used,” said Terry Kovacs, who studies the issue for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “So they’re not, like, every day going on some online thing or punching a clock or anything. They’re just kind of, at the end of the month, estimating how much official time they took.”
The VA spent by far the most time on union activities and was the only department that reached more than 1 million hours – a cost to taxpayers of $48.6 million. The Treasury Department came in second, spending just over 500,000 hours on official time, although that represented a 13 percent decrease from 2012. Those 500,000 hours cost taxpayers $23.5 million.
Even the National Gallery of Art spent 1,859 hours in 2014 on union activities, a 28 percent increase since 2012.
The House bill passed in May addresses the tracking issue. But experts agree those efforts will be hampered by vague language in the 1978 law, which permits “reasonable” amounts of union work in four broad categories.
The first is dispute resolution, in which employees can consult with their representatives without management knowing.
The second category is known as “mid-term bargaining,” in which the union has a say about changes management wants to enact within a contract period – training, say.
The third category involves contract negotiations, which happen only every few years but are time-consuming. While most federal unions can't bargain over wages, they can bargain over hours, working conditions and how disputes are resolved, among other things.
The final category is labeled “miscellaneous.” This is a catch-all term for lawful union activities that don’t fit into the other three categories, such as forums where management and employees come together to work on improving efficiency.
A 2017 report by the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that last category accounted for about 78 percent of official time. The CEI report concluded that “unions have taken advantage of ambiguities in the law to use official time on what appears to be internal union business.”
Still, Stone said, federal unions don’t have advantages other labor unions enjoy. Not only are their bargaining issues limited by law; they also can’t strike if their conditions aren’t met. The closest union members can come to bargaining for higher salaries is to ask Congress for more money.
Rep. Hice made it clear that he does not want any federal worker fired for engaging in official time, but would rather those employees provide the services they were hired to provide.
"At a time when our country is more than $20 trillion in debt, we must ensure that we are good stewards of federal taxpayer dollars, and that our federal employees, especially our VA nurses and doctors, are doing
the actual work they were hired to perform,” he said.
McDargh counters that she believes the current system benefits all. “The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 is the one that really holds the glue together to make sure we have an effective government,” she said. “It’s the voice of the workers in conjunction with the management of the agency that creates better service for the American people.”