The Feds Pay Bureaucrats $137M/Year Not to Work

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WASHINGTON-As Congress looks for ways to cut its $1.3 trillion deficit, the federal government is paying its employees $137 million a year not to work for Uncle Sam.

Not working. That's right. The Office of Personnel Management reports that taxpayers paid Federal workers over $137 million in 2010 to work as representatives for government unions, up from $129 million in 2009.

The time that union representatives spend not working for taxpayers is labeled "official time" by OPM. According to the report, "Official time is time spent by Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work." Under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, this is perfectly legal.

So, when working for the taxpayer becomes too boring, enterprising bureaucrats can be elected or appointed "union representatives." That means they have the privileged status of getting paid for not working, at least for some of the work-year. They are paid for full-time work by the taxpayers, including fringe benefits such as pension plans and medical insurance that most private-sector workers no longer receive.

Rather than "official time," it should be labeled "taxpayer time," because taxpayers are footing the bill.

OPM's new report, Official Time Usage in the Federal Government, released November 21, shows that government employees spent more than 3 million hours in 2010 not working on government duties. Instead of doing an honest day's work for taxpayers, these employees are "union representatives."

They represent unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Federation of Federal Employees. At last count by OPM, there were over 80 unions representing federal employees.

These federal workers represent their colleagues in installations from Maine to San Diego in talks with executive branch agencies such as the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Defense and independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the International Trade Commission.

OPM does not report numbers of government employees on "official time," only numbers of hours. Hence, it's not possible to calculate how many employees do no government work full-time.

Until 2002, agencies did not have to keep track of "official time." Kay James, OPM director under President George W. Bush, developed rules for tracking numbers of hours and costs, including fringe benefits.

But OPM's reports are purely voluntary. The 2010 and 2009 reports were published only after requests from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Florida Republican Representative Dennis Ross wants to require OPM to publish "official time." Representative Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, has proposed a bill that would eliminate it altogether.

Taxpayer expenditure on official time shrank from $143 million in 2004 to $102 million in 2006, and then rose gradually about 7 percent a year, reaching $137 million in 2010.
These costs are underestimates, because they do not include the expense of administering the program.

You might assume that being a union representative involves complex negotiations over wages and benefits, like the United Auto Worker negotiations with the Big Three in Detroit.

But federal union representatives cannot negotiate salaries or fringe benefits for anyone. Federal employee compensation, including fringe benefits, is set by statute, not by union representatives. Moreover, federal employees are prohibited by statute from striking.

No salary negotiations? No strikes? What is a federal union representative on the public dime to do with his "official time"? It turns out that one of the most important issues that they negotiate is how much time they, the union representatives, will be given not to work for the taxpayers.

Of the more than 3 million hours of "official time," less than 10 percent is for any form of "negotiations," slightly more than 10 percent is for "dispute resolutions," and roughly 80 percent is for "general labor management relations." The approximate bureaucratic translation of the last category is "not working for the taxpayer."

The federal government has dozens of agencies, and some are more indulgent with union representatives than others. Not surprisingly, the most generous is the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that seeks to block Boeing from using its newly built manufacturing plant in South Carolina.

In 2010, the NLRB had 11,480 hours of "official time" per year, or 10.67 per bargaining unit employee. The next highest is the Treasury, with 649,170 hours, or 7 hours per bargaining unit employee.

Other agencies with high rates of "official time" include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the General Services Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Railroad Retirement Board, and the Department of Transportation.

Some might be wonder why federal workers even need a union. Federal workers generally earn more than non-government workers for the same type of work, enjoy generous health coverage and annual leave, and, usually, comfortable work environments, whether they join a union or not. The federal government hardly fits the caricature of the evil One Percent against whom the Occupy Wall Street crowd rants.

For all of the benefits of working for the federal government, perhaps none is greater than being on "taxpayer time"-a taxpayer-paid union representative, doing next to nothing for workers who don't need a union. Ain't America great!

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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