The Murky World of ‘Official Time’ in Government

Allowing municipal employees to conduct union business while on the clock is widespread. It could use a dose of transparency.
November 20, 2017
Union workers on strike. (Shutterstock)
By Thom Reilly  |  Contributor
Chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education and a former county manager

"Official time," or union business leave (UBL), is widely practiced at all levels of government. A traditional justification for allowing public-sector employees to perform functions on behalf of a labor group in lieu of their regular job duties has been that it serves an essential role in improving labor-management relations and ultimately can create a tangible value for the public. But while the practice has been studied at the federal and state level, little has been done to examine its implementation and impact on the local level.

Yet costs associated with UBL practices can be significant and have a negative impact on local-government budgets. So how are local governments addressing UBL policies and costs? And are these decisions being made in the best interests of employees, managers, unions or elected officials? Because UBL practices and policies vary widely across local governments, the answers are far from clear -- a picture further muddied by issues surrounding transparency.

UBL has a long history in government. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 authorized official time for federal employees representing unions. UBL can either be paid or nonpaid. Activities typically include time off for negotiations, dealing with grievances, attending contract impasse proceedings, participating in labor-management workgroups and facilitating new workplace initiatives.

In a national study of 77 of the largest U.S. municipalities (with more than 250,000 people), Akheil Singla of Arizona State University and I focused on the UBL policies of two public-safety groups (firefighters and police officers) and each locality's largest non-public-safety union. Our study evaluated 231 collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).

While official time can be paid or unpaid, we found that paid UBL is quite prevalent, with the city most often responsible for assuming all or part of these costs. Of the employee groups that had CBAs in effect, UBL is most often paid (87 percent) with the city most often responsible for financing the leave in its entirety (59 percent) or through cost-sharing arrangements with the union (25 percent). Unions paid for the full UBL only 16 percent of the time.

Among jurisdictions that offer UBL, practices appear to be quite generous. Over 70 percent of the CBAs either allowed the maximum annual leave to exceed 500 hours or agreement on the arrangements between the union and city. Only 5 percent of the agreements prohibited annual rollover of unused leave hours.

Our study also showed that the local political environment and governance structure had a statistically significant effect on whether UBL was offered. Strong-mayor systems were 6.4 times more likely to have UBL than council-manager systems. UBLs also were more prevalent in cities with less-transparent processes, such as those requiring a public-records request to access a CBA.

The issue of transparency is one that came up time and again in our study. While most collective bargaining agreements could be accessed online, UBL practices embedded in the contracts were unclear. CBAs were mostly silent on key components such as the maximum annual allowable hours and whether unused hours could roll over. Sidebar agreements, often used to clarify or modify a CBA, are not found on any website or easily obtained, which can serve to avoid oversight and accountability. Whereas CBAs are required to be approved by both union membership and the city council, side agreements are not.

These practices go against traditional norms of good government, wherein transparency is valued as an important component of public administration. UBL side agreements should be publicly discussed at city council meetings, and the conditions that are agreed on should be part of the CBA and be available on the city and union websites.

UBL swill continue to be a fixture of federal, state and local-government practices. We hope this study will raise awareness of UBL practices at the local-government level, inspire additional research and serve as a tool for those engaged in implementing and governing official time in government.