Workforce Development

Arizona Leads Again by Banning Union Release Time

With the explosion of remote work due to COVID-19 came managerial concerns about employees not working or even working another job during business hours. While workers have largely allayed these fears by achieving record-setting productivity, the same cannot be said of some public sector workers using a practice known as “union release time.” 

Legal across the country, union release time allows public sector workers to complete work on behalf of unions, while still collecting full pay and benefits from the public employer. This means police officers are paid not to enforce the law and teachers are paid not to teach. Instead, they are paid (with taxpayer dollars) to work for the labor union representing them. Practically speaking, this means taxpayers fund workers advocating for things like increasing pay and benefits—also paid by taxpayer dollars—as compensation for the very job the worker is “released” from doing.

ALEC’s Prohibition on Paid Union Activity (Release Time) by Public Employees Ordinance would ban this labor practice in a state. It prohibits public employers from entering into agreements that compensate “any public employee or third party for union activities,” and it voids any existing agreements with such clauses.

Earlier in April, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a similar “first in the nation” law to end union release time in the Grand Canyon State. SB 166 blocks future and existing public employer contracts that provide public employees with “paid leave or any form of compensation for the purposes of engaging in union activities.” It also bans public employers from contacting with public employees to “engage in union activities.” Arizona taxpayers will now save millions annually—including $3.7 million in Phoenix alone—due to this reform.

In other states, some “released” employees work full-time for the unions and, in some instances, do so on a permanent basis. In Louisville, Kentucky, a public school teacher with a salary of $80,500 was released to work full-time for his union for 20 years. All told, states “release” thousands of workers’ hours a year. State taxpayers covered 2,125.8 hours of release time in Nevada, 2,771.73 hours in Nebraska, and 11,263.33 hours (not including contract time) in Colorado for 2020.

Not surprisingly, the costs for these hours quickly add up. Thirty-eight jurisdictions paid an estimated $10.03 million in pay and benefits to public workers via union release time in 2020. For the states listed above, Nevada paid $55,116.94, Nebraska paid $142,292.98, and Colorado paid $426,288 that year. One estimate puts California’s annual release time cost at $100 million for just its K-12 school districts. A national cost cannot be determined because many states and localities—including other union-friendly states like New York—require minimal to no tracking of union release time.

As the Janus vs AFSCME Supreme Court decision affirms, public sector workers have a right to associate (and, importantly, not to associate) with labor unions. That does not mean taxpayers have to foot the bill for these workers’ union activities, even through indirect means like union release time. More states can follow Arizona’s example in passing union release time reform to ensure taxpayer dollars support the work that public employees were hired to complete—like fighting fires and teaching—and not work for private entities like a union.    


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