Official time describes a practice where the federal government pays federal employees their regular salary and benefits while representing a union.
The Use of Official Time at the VA
David Shulkin, Secretary of the VA, wants to change the number of employees using official time and the amount of time used by the VA employees solely for representing the union. He noted, “the amount of time that is being spent away from clinical duties and other duties” is something that needs to be negotiated with the unions with which the agency has collective bargaining agreements.
Official time can be used by the agency employees for purposes of representing the union in contract negotiations, filing grievances or appeals on behalf of employees in the bargaining unit, or meeting with agency officials. Official time is not supposed to be used for conducting internal union business like soliciting new members or engaging in partisan political activities.
Basically, there is not a consistent system for monitoring or controlling the use of official time.
Government Accountability Report
According to GAO, in FY2015, data collected through a VA time tracking system showed VA employees spent approximately 1,057,000 hours of official time for union representational activities. According to VA officials, unions represented almost 290,000 bargaining unit employees across the agency during this time.
The data also shows 346 employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time. This basically means the entire salary and benefits paid by the agency for these 346 employees was spent for the employee to represent a union and not performing clinical or other duties for the VA.
GAO also noted some time keeping systems used by the VA weren’t reliable. The VA uses two separate time and attendance systems that track official time in different ways, according to GAO. Inconsistent recording of official time and lack of accurate data raises doubts about the agency’s ability to accurately monitor official time usage or share reliable data with OPM.
Reforming Use of Official Time
The use of official time in an agency is subject to negotiations between the agency and union. The VA is one agency that hasn’t put time and effort into accurately tracking how much they are spending in supporting union activities.
Also, negotiating labor union contracts at the agency often takes one or more years and the contracts are usually effective for several years. While the agency and union could agree to open negotiations on the issue at any time, the unions aren’t going to be willing to give up a benefit that provides so much financial support for union activity paid entirely by the federal government.
It’s unlikely a union will agree to reduce the amount of time and money spent by the agency on their behalf.
The American Federation of Government Employees if the largest federal employee union and represents many employees at the VA. Their view has been that the use of official time is useful and constructive for any agency.
“Official time allows for the very best way for federal employees to bring forward evidence of waste, fraud, and abuse. AFGE uses official time to protect whistleblowers on issues large and small. And by denying the medical professionals who care for our nation’s heroes’ protections on the job, Congress is placing their misguided ideals far above the rights and needs of working people in our country’s most important healthcare system—many of whom are veterans themselves.
Money Spent on Union Activity in the Government
According to OPM, in FY2012, the number of hours spent on official time was 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits. Even though this figure is very specific, no one really knows how much time or money is spent on these activities.
However, in 2012 a GAO report found that the official time report wasn’t accurate and implies the actual cost to the government was significantly higher than reported.
Pending Official Time Legislation
Several bills, introduced in Congress to curb the use of official time and federal government’s support of unions, include:
A bill requiring an annual official time report has passed in the House but not been taken up in the Senate. Another bill that would impact a retired federal employee’s pension has been introduced to the House but hasn’t been considered by the full House. It’s unlikely to become a law, however.
The Vet Protection Act of 2017 has been recently been introduced and would present any employee in the VA who makes over $100,000 per year to use official time. It would also prevent any employee from spending more than 25 percent of duty time working on behalf of a union and receiving a salary and benefits from the federal government. The House is considering this bill although, it is unlikely to become a law.