Time for Union Release Time Transparency?

Across America, taxpayer dollars are being used to fund work done on behalf of private organizations. Firefighters are being paid not to fight fires. Social workers are being paid not to advocate for children. Instead, many states are paying some public sector workers to work for unions.

This practice is known as union release time. It occurs when public sector employees are “released” from completing their job responsibilities and allowed to work on behalf of a union instead—while still receiving full pay and benefits covered by taxpayers.

And while workers have every right to work for union, ALEC’s Prohibition on Paid Union Activity (Release Time) by Public Employees Act makes it clear that personal, private activity should be paid for by personal, private dollars. As the policy states, “public employees should not be prohibited from freely associating outside of their employment duties, including hiring individuals to help represent their interests, [but] this should occur at public employee, not taxpayer, expense.”

Arizona has already taken steps to ban union release time. As my previous ALEC blog explains, Arizona passed a “first in the nation” law banning the practice statewide. The law 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.’” Projected savings for Arizona taxpayers include $3.7 million in Phoenix alone.

Other states should follow Arizona’s lead. According to the Goldwater Institute, the “38 jurisdictions that do allow release time and did provide data [in 2019] reported 258,737 paid hours, which cost taxpayers $10.03 million.” Denver Public Schools, for example, reported 8,479 hours of release time, which cost taxpayers $317,165 in 2019. This amounted to Colorado taxpayers paying for union work equal to the pay of six Colorado teachers’ salaries.

However, as the Goldwater report notes, “the biggest takeaway [from their research]… is how few governments bother to track union release time.” In other words, release time reporting is inconsistent at best. This can make it difficult for taxpayers and state legislators to know just how much the state is using taxpayer dollars to cover union work.

The problem also exists at the federal level, but a new bill aims to fix that.

Introduced by Senator Ernst and Franklin, the Taxpayer-Funded Union Time Transparency Act requires government agency heads to “submit to Congress, and post on the public website of the agency, a report” that includes the cost incurred by release time and a breakdown of the hours and agency employees involved. Such transparency provides legislators and the American public insight into where taxpayers dollars are going and how many are going to organizations allowed to lobby and contribute to political campaigns. Or, as Senator Ernst explains, the reports document “the cost billed to taxpayers for union activities and the amount of time spent by federal employees working on behalf of themselves.”

Taxpayers deserve to have their money spent wisely on public goods and services, and that includes paying the salaries of public sector employees working to provide those goods and services. However, union release time has enabled some to stop working for taxpayers and start working for unions—while still on the taxpayer dime. Senator Ernst and Representative Franklin’s bill, which was introduced during Sunshine Week, can provide needed transparency to document just how much taxpayers are subsidizing private organizations’ work.