Published: Monday, 08 December 2014 17:25
Written by Eric Boehm, Watchdog.org
Unionized federal employees spent 2.48 million hours working for their labor unions while getting paid by taxpayers during 2013, and more than 360 workers who are on the federal payroll spent 100 percent of their time working for their union.
Under federal rules, employees who are members of a labor union are entitled to so-called "official time," where they are dismissed from their duties as a government employee to engage in labor union organizing activities. A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows the use of official time has increased over the past several years as the size of the federal workforce has grown.
And it's costing taxpayers plenty. According to the Office of Personnel Management, which tracks federal employees' time, federal employees were paid more than $157 million during 2012 while doing work for labor unions.
The GAO says the price tag may be even higher, since some federal agencies are not adequately tracking their employees' official time.
"Since agencies are most often managing the use of official time using an approach that has no specified number of hours, they could be at greater risk for abuse," auditors warned in the report, released last week.
During fiscal year 2013, more than 10,500 federal employees clocked at least one hour of official time, according to the GAO, which examined only the 10 largest agencies of the federal government.
A total of 2.48 million hours were devoted to union work by those employees. That's up from 1.9 million hours of official time used in 2006, a 25 percent increase since the previous time the GAO examined the issue.
Part of the reason for the increase is an overall increase in the size of government — there are 150,000 more employees in the 10 agencies covered by the report today than there were in 2006.
The largest increase in official time is in the Department of Homeland Security, the newest large bureaucracy in Washington. The number of employees in the department has nearly tripled since 2006, while the increase in using official time has jumped by 177 percent.
In 2013, DHS officials clocked more than 272,000 hours doing work for unions and getting paid by taxpayers.
That total is dwarfed by the 488 employees at the Veterans Association, who rang up more than 1 million hours of official time during 2013 — the largest total of an department the GAO examined.
"With veterans literally dying waiting to see a doctor, VA staff should be focused on fulfilling the promises made to America's heroes rather than on performing union duties to secure greater benefits for themselves," U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told the Federal Times, a newspaper that covers issues affecting federal employees.
The amount of official time allotted to a federal employee is determined by collective-bargaining agreements and differs from agency to agency and bargaining unit to bargaining unit. Because federal employee labor unions do not employ their own paid union business managers to represent employees, the use of official time was put into law in 1978 to allow labor union members to conduct labor union business while still getting paid by taxpayers.
Official time also is seen as a trade-off because federal employees are not allowed, by law, to go on strike.
But there are at least 360 employees of the federal government who work full-time for their unions while collecting a government paycheck, according to the GAO.
That's a tiny sliver of the federal workforce, but enough to make some question why taxpayers are footing the bill.
Though there have been congressional efforts to limit how much "official time" federal employees can use, they have been unsuccessful.
Coburn was one of 14 Republican senators who introduced a bill earlier this year to reduce what types of activities could count as "official time." A similar bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., in the U.S. House.
The Federal Workers Alliance opposed that bill. The FWA maintains official time is essential to government workers' collective-bargaining rights and should continue to be paid for by taxpayers.
Those proposals and others haven't advanced past the committee hearing stage, even in the Republican-controlled House. U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who authored a bill to require more disclosure of employees' official time, told Washington Examiner in February that House GOP leaders were unwilling to take on the powerful federal employee unions.
Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota,