While the Rest of Us Toil, Government Workers Get 'Official Time"

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WASHINGTON-With a backlog of almost 1 million unprocessed benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is shocking that over 250 of the Department's employees are on "official time," doing no work for veterans.

It sounds unbelievable to most of us who have to show up at work to do a job, but "official time" is time that federal workers spend working for their unions, and not working for taxpayers. A report published in February by the Office of Personnel Management states, "Official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees."

Republican senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio, in June 5 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, said, "Documents show that your department recently employed at least 85 VA nurses, some with six-figure salaries, who were in 100 percent official time status. At the same time, the department is recruiting more people to fill open nursing positions."

In 2011, according to OPM, the federal government paid over $156 million for some of its employees to work as representatives for government unions, up from $139 million in 2010 and $129 million in 2009.

The Veterans Affairs Department had 998,483.00 hours of official time in 2011, up 23 percent from 2010. The hours per employee rate was 4.02, compared with a government-wide average of 2.82. The agency spent $42.5 million on official time, including salaries and benefits for both full-time and part-time employees.

OPM issues numbers of hours of official time per agency, but not numbers of workers on full-time official time. To get this information, Americans for Limited Government, a conservative nonprofit association, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with each agency.

ALG found that the Department of Veterans Affairs had 250 employees on full-time official time, compared with 35 for the Department of Transportation and 16 for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The list of full-time VA employees can be found here. The salaries of the 258 workers range from $26,420 to $131,849. The average is $61,121. Seventeen employees have six-figure salaries.

Senator Coburn told me in an email last week, "While I am encouraged the VA has set laudable goals for reducing veterans' homelessness and the backlog of veterans' claims, I am concerned that VA employees who are paid by taxpayers to do union work full-time hinder these goals. It is unacceptable for employees to spend 100 percent of their time away from the job taxpayers pay them to do."

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. But many are not required to show up at the office.

VA employees on "official time" represent unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union.

· Patricia LaSala, a nurse in San Francisco, made $131,849 representing the NFFE.
· Ellen Pitts, a nurse in Massachusetts, was paid $123,173 to represent the NAGE.
· Physician assistant Irene Coley earned $106,369 representing the AFGE in Charleston, South Carolina.
· Joseph Simon, representing the SEIU, was paid $120,544 not to work as a pharmacist at the VA hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.

Contributions from these unions flow back into politics, the vast majority to Democratic causes. For example, the SEIU was described by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics as a "heavy hitter" in terms of contributions. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, the SEIU spent $16.9 million on contributions to candidates, almost all Democrats, and $23 million on outside spending.

The SEIU spent $2.5 million on lobbying, with its major target Senator Portman's Regulatory Accountability Act. The bill would require the federal government to more carefully measure the costs and benefits of regulations and make data available to the public. Why the SEIU is afraid of a sensible cost-benefit analysis of regulations is anyone's guess.

VA employees spend about 77 percent of their official time hours on "general labor-management relations," in part because in December 2009 President Obama issued Executive Order 13522 to expand labor-management forums in the federal government, including the creation of a National Council on Labor-Management Relations. A small fraction is spent resolving disputes or negotiating contracts.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) introduced a bill to limit official time entitled the Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2013. The bill has 21 consponsors. Gingrey introduced similar legislation in the 111th and 112th Congresses. The Senate version, sponsored by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, would completely eliminate "official time."

Paying government employees to work for unions is wrong at any time, but especially when federal employees are being furloughed during the sequester, and the VA is taking months to give veterans the benefits they are rightly owed by Uncle Sam.

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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