Agencies cut official time by 28% in 2019, per latest OPM data

Federal bargaining-unit employees logged fewer hours of official time in 2019 compared to previous years, according to a new report from the Office of Personnel Management.

Employees’ use of official time, or the number of hours spent performing union representational duties during the course of normal work hours, dropped by 28.3% in 2019 compared to 2016, the last year OPM published such data.

In 2019, bargaining unit employees spent a total of 2,606,390 hours on official time across government, down from the 3,633,290 hours reported in 2016.

Official time cost agencies nearly $135 million in 2019, a 24% decrease from the $177 million government spent on three years prior, according to OPM’s report.

OPM quietly released this most recent report on official time with little fanfare. An OPM spokesman said the agency posted the report on Nov. 12 to its website.

It’s the first time OPM has reported on official time since President Donald Trump signed an executive order back in 2018 that limited its usage across government. The EO, which unions temporarily blocked in court, directed agencies to authorize an annual limit on official time totaling one hour per employee in each bargaining unit.

But key provisions of the president’s official time executive order were still enjoined for much of 2019, and OPM said the EO and its limitations weren’t directly responsible for decreases in “taxpayer-funded-union-time,” as the agency put it in its new report.

“However, we believe that agencies were mindful of the EO requirement calling for an effective and efficient government and were more effective in monitoring and tracking the use of taxpayer-funded-union-time and ensuring it was used only for authorized purposes,” OPM said.

In total, government used an average of 1.96 hours of official time per bargaining unit employee in 2019, down from an average of 2.97 hours per employee three years ago.

Some agencies have clearly cut back on official time over the last three years, including many of the large cabinet agencies.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, cut official time usage in half in three years. VA bargaining unit employees spent slightly more than 502,000 hours on official time in 2019, down significantly from roughly 1 million hours in 2016.

VA’s decline isn’t surprising, considering the department eliminated official time for most medical professionals two years ago.

Other agencies saw similar or even larger decreases in official time usage. The Environmental Protection Agency reduced official time by nearly 61%. The Department of Health and Human Services reported a 85% drop in official time usage.

OPM itself also cut official time in half, while the Education Department barely used official time at all in 2019. Education employees used an hour-and-a-half of official time compared to more than 6,500 hours in 2016, according to the OPM report. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents a portion of the Education workforce, said the department imposed new bargaining terms on the union back in 2018.

The Commerce and Labor Departments logged modest increases in official time usage.

The Defense Department saw a 36% increase in official time use in 2019, but representatives there still spent about an hour on union duties for each bargaining unit employee. DoD had 492,668 bargaining unit employees in 2019, a 20% increase over its total from 2016.

All told, 41 agencies reported declines in their hourly official time rates, while 12 agencies tracked increases, according to OPM.

Scroll over to see more data fields. (Source: Office of Personnel Management)

“OPM considers changes in official time usage per bargaining unit employee from 2016 to 2019 to be statistically significant,” the agency wrote in its report. “It should be noted, however, that this is the first year in which data had been captured utilizing the taxpayer-funded-union-time reporting process.”

OPM’s data collection techniques may have accounted for differences in the number of bargaining unit employees, for example, or decreases in official time overall, the agency said.

Previously, OPM used the Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) system to gather data from agencies’ automated time and attendance systems. Some agencies reported official time usage to the EHRI, but others didn’t, leading the Government Accountability Office and members of Congress to express concerns with the accuracy and consistency of OPM’s 2016 data.

But for its most recent report, OPM asked agencies to manually report official time data via a template.

“We believe this has facilitated greater transparency, accountability and accuracy,” OPM said. “However, OPM will continue to work with agencies in identifying ways to improve the reporting of taxpayer-funded-union-time and the reliability of such data.”

Though OPM said agencies were mindful of the Trump administration’s desired changes to official time policy in 2019, other factors can impact an organization’s use of such time in a given year.

An agency could have opened up its contract, meaning union representatives used more official time than usual to engage in collective bargaining with agency labor officials. Mid-term negotiations also require official time.

Costs of official time, agency-provided office space are down

Many agencies for the first time also detailed the costs of providing employee unions with free or discounted office space and other equipment and supplies.

Across government, OPM said agencies incurred more than $163 million on official time and other costs from labor organizations in 2019, including nearly $25 million on office space and other equipment.

“While costs to the American taxpayer appear to have decreased since [the official time executive order] was issued, OPM believes opportunities remain for the federal government to continue reducing these costs now that [the EO] is in full force and effect,” OPM wrote. “Agencies are expected to continue fully implementing the EO requirements and renegotiating their collective bargaining agreements at the earliest opportunity under the law.”

The Defense Department, for example, provided more than $8.4 million worth of office space and equipment to employee unions in 2019, the most of any other agency. DoD, according to OPM, is partially reimbursed for those expenses.

VA provided employee unions nearly $6 million in office space and supplies in 2019, a number that’s likely lower today. The department ordered unions late last year to leave or begin paying rent on the office space they occupied.

Office space and other expenses for unions also crossed the $1 million mark at the Treasury Department, Transportation Department and Social Security Administration.

Federal employee unions, meanwhile, have said limits on official time hinder their ability to adequately represent the workforce. They argue official time is often necessary, because federal unions are open shops and must represent everyone in the bargaining unit, regardless of their status as a dues-paying member.

The National Treasury Employees Union dismissed the term, “taxpayer-funded-union-time,” which OPM again used in this latest report.

“It is not a subsidy for unions at the public’s expense,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said in a statement to Federal News Network. “NTEU’s chapters use official time to negotiate agreements to ensure employees are treated fairly and protected from arbitrary treatment, all of which promotes a civil service based on merit.”

AFGE said OPM’s latest official time report “boasted” of the changes the Trump administration had enforced in recent years.

“Because of this administration’s extreme adversarial stance toward employees, federal workers today have fewer opportunities to hold agency officials to account for poor management and fewer protections against discrimination, retaliation by political appointees and hazardous and unsafe working conditions — all of which have become increasingly important during the pandemic,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement to Federal News Network.

Both unions said they looked forward to the day when the incoming Biden administration had repealed the 2018 executive orders on official time and collective bargaining, which the president-elect has promised to do.

Related Stories

Comments

Sign up for breaking news alerts