Lawmakers, unions join to oppose end to ‘official time’ for EEOC complaints
- By Nathan Abse
- Aug 10, 2020
Federal employee unions -- joined by 185 lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- are clamoring to block the Trump administration from eliminating federal employees’ use of “official time” for managing workplace discrimination complaints.
For the past half-century, federal employee discrimination cases often have been compiled by the complainant with the help of coworkers operating on paid work time, also used for union business. But last December, the administration proposed a new rule banning this particular use of compensated time.
According to the Office of Personnel Management: “Official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees. Labor and management are equally accountable to the taxpayer and have a shared responsibility to ensure that official time is authorized and used appropriately.”
The administration’s logic in moving to revoke official time for such complaints, which fall under the authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is complicated. But it boils down to this: Paying “complainants and their representatives” for time spent on EEO cases was instituted in 1972 -- well before current federal law governing use of official time was passed, in 1978. Having never been reviewed in light of the later law, the administration says, the current EEO official time rule has no validity.
“Since union official time did not exist in statute until 1978, there was no reason for the … original EEO procedures to address union official time when it first published the regulation in 1972,” the proposed rule states.
Many on Capitol Hill have stepped up to oppose the proposed rule change. On July 29, 185 lawmakers joined in sending a letter of protest on the plan to the chair of the EEOC, Janet Dhillon.
The rule, they wrote, “would undermine the rights of federal employees and harm the mission of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the equal employment opportunity process.”
“Over the past 40 years, complainants have often chosen co-workers who serve in an official capacity with the union to represent them in the employment discrimination complaint process,” the letter continues. “The proposed rule, because it would exclude union representatives from the official time requirement, would deny complainants the experience and expertise that union representatives can offer. The loss of their experience and expertise will negatively affect the equal employment opportunity process, which will become less efficient and effective as a result.”
Unions, too, are pushing back. “With our entire nation examining how we can move forward and ensure fair treatment for all Americans, the EEOC is trying to turn back the clock on the progress we’ve already made and make it harder to address discrimination in the workplace,” Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. “EEOC has an important civil rights mission, and with this role, it should be promoting robust enforcement, not making access harder for those who are vulnerable.”
Another major union, the National Federation of Federal Employees, also sharply criticized the change. “This hurts federal employees because the EEO process in the federal sector can be confusing and technical,” NFFE said in a statement released when the plan first surfaced last year. “Federal workers who serve as union stewards and officers are knowledgeable about their agency’s EEO processes and have experience assisting their fellow bargaining unit employees that have faced discrimination on the job.”
Unions want to preserve the use of official time for EEO complaints and other on-the-job conflicts for a number of reasons -- not least because when employees are protected from abusive practices, according to unions and many experts, agency efficiency is better maintained -- which helps both labor and management.
Data provided congressional committees in recent years showed that fewer than 13,000 federal employees -- out of over 2 million total -- use any official time, and fewer than 1,000 of those spent more than 50% of their workday on official time. Girded by such statistics on its use, those opposed to the White House’s push against all official time have argued the highly publicized campaign represents another political attack against labor rather than true cost-cutting.