Pressure mounts on official time as bill moves to House floor vote

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and those representing federal employee unions are sounding off yet again on one of the most contentious labor issues in the federal government.

At a markup hearing on March 1, the committee approved a bill introduced by Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) that would require the Office of Personnel Management to submit yearly governmentwide reports on the practice of official time, which is paid time off for workers to represent their union.

“Basically, official time is when federal employees stop doing the assigned work of their agency and instead perform tasks for labor unions. Shockingly, there’s no requirements to report information on official time to the taxpayer,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said during the Tuesday markup.

Hice told the committee that OPM’s last available official time report was released in 2014, but only covers data from fiscal 2012. That report found that agencies spent 3.4 million hours on official time in fiscal 2012 at a cost of $157 million.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), however, reminded the committee that official time is a collective bargaining right guaranteed by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and Title V of the U.S. Code. He said current law already prevents federal workers from abusing the system.

“While federal employees may request official time, federal managers and supervisors retain exclusive authority over whether to approve official time requests,” Lynch said. “I really think that this bill is a solution in search of a problem.”

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a driving force behind the investigations into official time, said the bill doesn’t go after federal employees, but seeks to deliver data transparency.

“Some members do want to see this information. It’s really a sunshine bill,” Chaffetz said.”It’s not overly burdensome, I don’t think, and there are those of us that would like to know and see that information.”

The bill’s progression through the House coincides with a deadline for 26 agencies to hand over information detailing how many government employees carry out official time functions during the workday.

In one response letter, a local chapter president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, blasted Chaffetz and the oversight committee for continuing to prod this issue.

John J. O’Grady, president of AFGE 704, a chapter that represents Environmental Protection Agency employees, said Congress should be more sensitive about disclosing personal information on federal employees in the course of its investigation. He cited the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon as a recent case where federal workers have been at risk.

“Given what happened in Oregon, where Federal workers were intimidated and targeted by domestic terrorists, why is Congress requesting the names of individual employees, when the risk to employees far outweighs any benefit that might be gained?” O’Grady said in his letter. “When Congress requests the names of employees that use official time that only places the employees at risk, but also their spouses, children and other family members. Congress does not need employee names to be able to use the information. Rather, I suggest that Congress set an example and not place children and other individuals at risk merely to pursue a partisan political agenda.”

Trey Kovacs, policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. said passage of the Ross bill would hold OPM more accountable in disclosing official time information.

“There’s no law on the books that requires annual reporting, so they’ve really just been pretty slow,” Kovacs said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “You’re going to see that the numbers are going to be much higher if any kind of bill passes that would require reporting and a solid methodology.”

If passed, the Ross bill would also require that OPM report on other official time costs besides salary.

“Right now, OPM’s just showing you the hours and the costs of salaries and benefits. There are other costs that are associated with it — there’s travel, per diem, arbitration, offices and supplies — which OPM doesn’t report,” Kovacs said. “It’s very hard to see how the government can be run more effectively and safeguards the public interest when you have federal employees not doing their civic duty, and performing union business. There’s no public interest in official time. They’re performing the private business of the union, which should be supported by union dues.”

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