Agencies used slightly more official time in 2014, OPM says

Bargaining unit employees used slightly more official time in fiscal 2014 compared to two years before, according to a long-awaited report from the Office of Personnel Management.

The report, which OPM released Friday, comes as House lawmakers suggest some limitations to its use in some agencies.

Specifically, bargaining unit employees spent 3,468,170 hours on official time in fiscal 2014, a 0.84 percent increase over fiscal 2012’s total. Employees individually also spent 2.88 hours on official time in 2014 — more than the 2.81 hour rate two years earlier.

In total, agencies spent about $162.5 million — a 3.4 percent increase — on official time in 2014 compared to the previous 2012 report.

OPM calculates its total official time cost estimates by multiplying the  reported number of official time hours by each agency’s average bargaining unit employee hourly wage plus fringe benefits, the report said.

Total official time estimates represented roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the total cost of federal employees’ salaries and benefits in 2014, OPM said.

“OPM’s report confirms that the amount of official time used by federal workers is minuscule when compared to the entire workforce, yet the benefits to American taxpayers are enormous,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox said in a statement.

OPM said it considered changing its formula for calculating the costs of official time, per a recommendation from the Government Accountability Office. Ultimately, OPM chose to continue using the same method.

“We considered the value of maintaining a consistent approach to cost estimates, which permits meaningful comparisons from one year to the next,” the report said. “We also considered the time and resources that would be required to implement alternate methodologies and to produce official time estimates for all agencies.”

Congress has always taken an interest in this topic, but House lawmakers have been particularly focused on official time in recent weeks.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cleared the Official Time Reform Act of 2017, which would prevent any days that an employee mostly spends on official time from counting toward his or her retirement annuity.

Another bill, the Veterans, Employees and Taxpayers Protection Act, puts the focus on the Veterans Affairs Department. It would limit VA employees from spending more than half of their work hours on official time. VA employees involved in delivering direct patient care could not spend more than 25 percent of their work hours on official time and prohibits physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors and optometrists from using official time at all.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) introduced the legislation after GAO reported on the department’s unreliable official time data.

VA employees spent slightly more hours on official time in 2014 than in 2012, according to OPM’s report. VA reported its employees spent about 1,093,714 hours on official time in 2014, compared with the previous reporting year. Yet the official time rate per employee went down in 2014, suggesting that more employees are using official time but for shorter periods individually.

VA Official Time Use in 2014 and 2012
Total Hours Official Time Rate Cost Estimate
2012 1,086,257 4.28 $46,868,149
2014 1,093,714 3.98 $48,640,351

 

The department itself supports Arrington’s bill and said it didn’t seem reasonable that an employee spend 100 percent of his or her hours on official time.

Most agencies cut back on the total number of official time hours their employees used in 2014; 37 agencies said their employees spent fewer hours on official time, while 20 agencies said their employees used more and four agencies reported no changes.

VA, as the second largest government department, racked up the most official time hours and spends the most out of any other reporting agency, according to OPM.

The Treasury Department came in second and spent just more than 504,000 hours and $23.5 million on official time in 2014 — though nearly half as much as VA. Treasury in fact cut its official time total and costs down between 2012 and 2014.

OPM collected data from the Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) system and agencies’ own manual reports from their time and attendance systems. OPM for the first time asked agencies to explain any discrepancies between its EHRI data and departments’ own information.

“Agencies that report official time via EHRI were asked to verify the official time hours used by employee representatives within their organizations and to validate how those hours were used within the four predefined categories [term negotiations, mid-term negotiations, dispute resolution and general labor-management relations],” OPM wrote.

OPM once told GAO that official time reporting was “not a priority at this time.” GAO said in 2014 that employees could be using official time more often than what agencies reported, because OPM hasn’t updated its methodology for collecting that data since 2002.

Unions represented 1,203,693 non-postal federal bargaining units in 2014, 18,844 fewer employees or 1.54 percent drop compared with 2012.

OPM last submitted a report on official time to Congress in 2014, which detailed agency data from fiscal 2012.

Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would require OPM to submit an annual report on official time to Congress.

Some House leaders have pushed for more reporting from OPM in the past. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) have asked agencies for more specific data on their employees’ official time use in the past.