To Cut Government Spending, Lay Off the Loafers

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WASHINGTON-With the sequester scheduled for March 1, everyone is looking for ways to save money. How about cutting the employees the federal government pays not to work for Uncle Sam?

In a new report issued earlier this month, the Office of Personnel Management announced that the federal government paid over $156 million in 2011 for some of its employees to work as representatives for government unions, up from $139 million in 2010 and $129 million in 2009.

In government language that would make George Orwell smile, the time that federal workers spend working for their unions and not working for taxpayers is termed "official time." According to the report, "Official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees."

In most workplaces, employees who don't work for the hours they are paid are called "loafers," "slackers," or worse. In the federal government, such workers are on "official time." Shirking never looked so good.

Government workers on "official time" have office space in a particular agency to which they are assigned, and are paid for full-time work by the taxpayers, including fringe benefits such as pension plans and medical insurance that many private-sector workers no longer receive.

OPM's new report, "Official Time Usage in the Federal Government," was released on February 15, just before a three-day weekend and a week of congressional recess. It shows that government employees spent more than 3.4 million hours in 2011 not working on government duties, up from 3.1 million in 2010 and 3 million in 2009. This would be a good place to trim spending.

Employees on "official time" 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.

OPM does not report the number of government employees on "official time," only numbers of hours. The only way to ascertain the number of employees on official time is to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to each individual agency.

Americans for Limited Government, a conservative non-profit organization, filed such a request to all federal agencies in 2012. So far ALG has received information from the Departments of Transportation, Interior, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Small Business Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Labor Relations Board.

The Department of Transportation spent $17.7 million in 2011 on 264,562 hours of official time, including salaries and benefits for both full-time and part-time employees. Some Department employees spent part of their day working for the government union, and others worked for their union full-time.

According to a letter from Kathy Roy, FOIA Officer at the Department of Transportation, 35 active workers did no work at all for the Department in 2012. The list can be found here. They were paid an average salary of $138,000, for a total cost to the Department of $4.8 million annually. Many more Department of Transportation employees spent some of their day at departmental duties, with the rest as "official time," courtesy of the taxpayer.

At the upper end of the salary range, Phil Barbarello, Dean Iacopelli, and Timon Kalpaxis, three New York air traffic controllers who represent that National Air Traffic Controllers Association, were paid $179,700 annually for "official time." This includes merit pay and bonuses, but not benefits such as subsidized health insurance, retirement fund contributions, vacation, and sick leave. At the lower end, James Crawford, a program analyst in Atlantic City representing the National Federation of Federal Employees, was paid $80,748, plus benefits.

Seventeen of the Transportation Department's employees who are on full-time "official time" are air traffic controllers, in cities ranging from Anchorage to Washington, D.C. All but one of these air traffic controllers make a six-digit salary. The Federal Aviation Administration is warning that 100 air traffic control towers might close due to the sequester, so perhaps these controllers could be drafted into service.

The Environmental Protection Agency spent $2.6 million on part-time and full-time official time in 2011. In all, 17 employees were paid a total of $1.6 million, or an average of $96,000 each, not to work at all for the taxpayer. The list can be found here. The three highest earners, each making $110,104 annually, were Rosezell Canty-Letsome and Diane Lynne representing the National Treasury Employees Union, and Karen Kellen representing the American Federation of Government Employees. At the low end of the range, Amer Al-Mudallal, a chemist, representing the National Treasury Employees Union, was paid $88,397.

Taxpayer expenditure on official time at all federal and independent agencies shrank from $143 million in 2004 to $102 million in 2006, and then rose gradually about 7 percent a year, reaching $139 million in 2010. In 2011 it increased 12 percent to $156 million. These figures do not include the costs of the program's administration.

Federal union representatives cannot negotiate salaries or fringe benefits, as do representatives of the United Auto Workers or the Teamsters, because federal employee compensation, including fringe benefits, is set by statute, not by union representatives. Federal workers are not allowed to strike.

In December 2009 President Obama issued Executive Order 13522 to expand labor-management forums in the federal government. He created a National Council on Labor-Management Relations, which has experimented with a range of pilot programs in different agencies. This explains part of the increase in "official time" during Obama's term.

At the Department of Transportation, only 5 percent of "official time" hours were spent on dispute resolution, and 3 percent on negotiations. Ninety-two percent were spent on "general labor-management relations." Federal union representatives spend over three-quarters of their "official time" on general labor-management relations, according to the new OPM report.

The federal government has dozens of agencies, and some are more indulgent with union representatives than others. The most generous is the National Labor Relations Board, where Mr. Obama's two recess appointments were just nullified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In 2011, the NLRB had 12,911 hours of "official time" per year for 1,043 bargaining unit employees. That's over 12 hours per bargaining unit employee. The next highest hours of official time per employee is the tiny National Endowment for the Humanities, with 31 employees and 10 hours per bargaining unit employee.

How can Mr. Obama decry the automatic spending cuts when his administration is spending $156 million annually on "official time"? Start with saving the millions, and the billions will take care of themselves.

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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