Everything you need to know about official time

Between last week's OPM report and this week's congressional hearing, feds may have some questions about official time. Federal News Radio wants to answer them.

Depending on who you talk to, official time is either a necessary part of the process for federal employees to ensure fair treatment and resolve disputes with their agencies, or it’s a vehicle for corrupt union officials to get taxpayers to foot the bill for union business.

A new report from the Office of Personnel Management detailing how agencies used official time in 2016, the most recent study since 2014, referred to it as “taxpayer-funded union time.” The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee intends to take a closer look at use of official time at a May 24 hearing.

So what exactly is official time, where does it come from and what is it used for?

Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 created official time for employees involved in collective bargaining negotiations, or representing an employee on behalf of the union, when they would otherwise be performing their duties. In other words, official time exists to guarantee employees who represent their fellow coworkers during internal agency deliberations do not suffer a loss of pay.

What work does it apply to?

Official time could mean representing employees in grievances or disciplinary actions. It could also apply to helping an agency determine telework policy, procedures for promotions, or other policies that could affect the workplace or quality of life for agency employees.

So referring to it as “taxpayer-funded union time” is misleading, because everything official time is authorized for is agency business, not union business. In fact, the Civil Service Reform Act expressly prohibits employees from performing union business on official time.

“Any activities performed by any employee relating to the internal business of a labor organization (including the solicitation of membership, elections of labor organization officials, and collection of dues) shall be performed during the time the employee is in a nonduty status,” the legislation reads.

Who pays for it?

Federal employees are not required to join a union; however, the law requires unions to represent every federal employee, regardless of whether they are members of the union. Because of that, to ensure fair representation, agencies are required to pay employees for their use of official time. Otherwise, employees would be forced to meet with managers about workplace issues on their own time, while managers would be compensated for those meetings.

But agencies have a say in this too. While the Civil Service Reform Act grants the Federal Labor Relations Authority the ability to determine the circumstances in which agencies are required to pay official time, it limits the amount of official time to “any amount the agency and the exclusive representative involved agree to be reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest.”

So union representatives don’t have free reign to charge agencies for as much official time as they please. That has to be negotiated between the agency and the union representatives, and approved by agency management.

What does it cost?

Official time doesn’t cost agencies anything extra monetarily — employees are paid for official time at their normal rate.

There’s also a perception that official time costs agencies man-hours that would ordinarily be devoted to the agency’s mission. While it may be true that employees on official time are not conducting their usual duties, what they are performing is human resources functions for the agency.

In addition, deliberations made on official time save agencies time and money that would otherwise be spent resolving conflicts through litigation in the courts.

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