Imagine each working day, federal employees report for work but do not perform any governmental duties. Instead, they work for a private enterprise void of any public purpose — their union. Taxpayers pay for these employees’ wages, pensions and health care benefits. Taxpayers pay for office space, supplies and travel, too.
Unfortunately, there is no need to imagine. It is a longstanding and wasteful practice, known as union official time. Generally, federal employees on official time perform union business such as negotiate contracts, file grievances, attend union conferences and even lobby Congress.
The latest data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) estimates the union subsidy costs $178.8 million, with federal employees spending 3.6 million hours conducting union business. It is important to note that these figures are estimates that do not include the cost of office space and other perks, and likely lowball because federal agencies do a poor job tracking and recording the hours spent on official time and the costs.
Back in May 2018, President Trump issued three executive orders to curtail official time and to make federal agencies more accountable and fiscally responsible. Specifically, the orders will make it easier to remove federal employees for poor performance and misconduct, require agencies to negotiate more effective union contracts and limit the amount of time federal employees conduct union business on the taxpayers’ dime.
Shortly after the orders were issued, multiple labor unions filed lawsuits against the orders and won a temporary injunction. That ended on Oct. 2, 2019, when a federal appeals court lifted the injunction on the executive orders.
Now, the Trump administration is moving to swiftly implement those orders. On Oct. 4, the OPM issued updated guidance to agencies that the policies “are in full force and effect” and federal agencies should “ensure that they are fully compliant with all requirements or are taking steps to become compliant with requirements at the soonest feasible opportunity.”
Already, some agencies are moving forward to put these common-sense reforms into effect. Last Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) notified the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) that it will begin rescinding government office space, equipment and IT services and stop reimbursing “expenses for employees performing non-agency business” at the first opportunity — likely once the VA collective bargaining agreements with the union expire.
Official time has proven problematic at the VA. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report on official time use at the VA found the agency lacks proper tracking and recording methods. For example, the VA does not collect reliable data on official time. Instead, it uses “records, estimates, or other methods” to calculate official time. What we do know is that these federal employees are not serving veterans.
Even with poor reporting, OPM estimates that VA employees spent about 1.1 million hours on union matters rather than serving veterans. And hundreds of medical professionals at the VA have been granted 100 percent official time. That’s certainly not helped in addressing the patient backlogs at the VA.
The executive orders “could lead to the repurposing of hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space and spending the $49 million it paid employees on ‘official time’ to other uses such as suicide prevention,” according to a statement from the VA to Government Executive. All would agree, this is a better use of public funds.
Undoubtedly, federal employee unions will bellyache over the lost perk and cry “union busting.” But the executive orders do not curb the role of unions at the workplace nor restrict workers from joining a union; they merely require unions pay for their own offices and represent workers using their own funds, not tax dollars. That’s a standard that should have been in place all along.
• Trey Kovacs is a labor policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization in Washington, D.C.