Every year, the federal government spends millions of man-hours and hundreds of millions of precious taxpayer dollars on a little known practice referred to as “official time.” Under current law, federal employee union members use official time to conduct union activities during the workday, even if it is completely unrelated to their regularly assigned agency duties. Some federal employee union members engage exclusively in union business instead of doing the job they were hired to do, all while collecting full pay and benefits from taxpayers. For most Americans, spending significant time at work doing something unrelated to our jobs would be a fireable offense, but for federal unions, it is business as usual.
These individuals on 100 percent official time create a tremendous amount of slack to the detriment of their agency — and the taxpayer. Take, for example, the roughly 350 Department of Veterans Affairs employees who operated solely on official time in fiscal year 2015. Among these individuals are much-needed nurses, pharmacists, addiction therapists, a physician and even a prosthetic limb specialist. Rather than providing critical healthcare services to our nation’s veterans, these union members spend their entire working days on union duties like collective bargaining and arbitrating grievances. Their work is going undone — veterans left uncared for — because they are working on behalf of their union, leaving others to pick up the slack or even forcing the VA to hire new healthcare professionals to perform the duties they were originally hired to do.
To address this problem, I have introduced H.R. 1364, the Official Time Reform Act, which would prohibit federal employees who spend 80 percent or more of their time on official time from counting that as creditable service under the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employee Retirement System and from receiving bonuses. If an individual was hired to fit prosthetic limbs on veterans’ combat injuries, that is what they should be doing — not somewhere litigating employee grievances or conducting other union business every hour of every work day. My legislation does not eliminate or even curtail official time use. Even if you support official time, as some of my colleagues do, we should all be able to agree that federal employees who work exclusively on behalf of their union instead of the taxpayer should not earn bonuses or retirement benefits paid for by the taxpayer.
My legislation is further needed because the abuse of official time is systemic and has led to unacceptable failures in government agencies. Look at the Internal Revenue Service for instance. Its customer service levels are at an all-time low. In fact, in 2015, just 38 percent of callers seeking assistance actually ended up reaching an IRS representative. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen himself described his own agency’s performance as “abysmal.” Despite this agency-wide crisis, the IRS has several dozen customer service representatives working 100 percent official time, doing nothing but union business. If these civil servants were doing their actual jobs instead of representing the union, the IRS could be answering thousands of more calls from taxpayers in need.
Federal employees are hardworking people who do important and often critical jobs for our nation. Many federal employees work for decades in their department, and their years of hard work earn them retirement benefits from the federal government. However, federal employee union members on official time cross a certain threshold where they cease to represent the interests of the taxpayer and begin to primarily represent the interests of their union. These individuals who spend the vast majority or even all their time working on behalf of the union instead of their agency should not receive federal retirement benefits as though they had been performing the duties for which they were hired.
Additionally, the Official Time Reform Act would clarify that federal employee union members cannot use official time on political activities such as grassroots lobbying or picketing. Non-union federal employees are forbidden from engaging in political activity while on the taxpayers’ dime, and union members should be no different. Asking the taxpayer to subsidize union politics is simply unacceptable.
The American people have the right to expect that federal employees hired to work on their behalf are actually doing so — not working on behalf of other interests. I will continue working to curtail waste present in this mismanagement of official time at federal agencies. I hope those familiar with official time will support my proposal, and I believe Americans who may be hearing about it for the first time will similarly understand the need for this commonsense legislation.
Hice represents Georgia’s 10th District and is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.