Official Time to Get Further Scrutiny

Two House committees will hold a hearing Thursday on the VA’s use of official time, the opening of expected continued scrutiny of that on-the-clock time allowed for federal employees with union roles to conduct certain union-related duties.

The Veterans Affairs and Oversight and Government Reform panels will focus on a recent GAO report finding that VA does not reliably report on how much time its employees use–for purposes such as bargaining and representing employees facing discipline–because its components keep such records in different ways and use different definitions.

However, official time has long been a target of some Republicans on Capitol Hill who argue that federal employees should be spending their time on official duties, not union duties; unions argue that such time is authorized by law as a tradeoff for their obligation to represent all bargaining unit members, whether or not they pay dues to the union.

Numerous bills have been offered in Congress in recent years either to abolish official time outright or to simply require more thorough reporting on it–as a possible prelude to a later move to abolish it. During the Obama administration, some Republicans on Capitol Hill pushed OPM to compile and release those numbers regularly.

Of particular interest is the number of employees who spend all of their time on union duties; the official VA count is about 350 but committee leaders in announcing the hearing suggested that that number is under-reported.

The most recent figures on official time from OPM cover 2012 and were part of a larger 2014 report that overall touted the value of the union role in agencies, rather than, as previously, as a separate report focusing just on those data. It showed an average of 2.81 hours per bargaining unit employee that year, up from 2.60 in fiscal 2008–but down from 3.70 in 2004 and 4.71 in 2002, during the Bush administration. It did not show how many employees work fully on official time.

Use of official time can fluctuate year-to-year, depending for example on whether negotiations over major contracts are being conducted.