Panel probing union activities on public payroll Situation out of control at Social Security, says House subcommittee chief

July 23, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House panel that oversees the Social Security Administration contends that its employees have been inappropriately performing work for their unions during regular work hours.

While contracts with federal employees allow them to carry out some union duties on "official time," Rep. Jim Bunning charges that the problem is out of control, costing taxpayers $14.7 million in salary and expenses a year. The Kentucky Republican began three days of hearings on the issue yesterday; they are scheduled to conclude tomorrow.

In Baltimore -- where Social Security has its headquarters -- 20 federal workers with annual salaries ranging from $23,000 to $81,000 spend full time on union activities, according to 1996 figures released by aides to Bunning's Ways and Means subcommittee.

Similar findings were made in the agency's New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta offices.

Officials at the American Federation of Government Employees and the Social Security Administration rejected Bunning's contentions, which were based on a review by the agency's inspector general. The federal agency coordinates government payments to senior citizens and other Americans who receive disability benefits.

Suspicion of abuse

The review cited slipshod recordkeeping by Social Security and recommended a series of measures to monitor what employees do when they are on "official time." The inspector general said 25 percent of managers who were interviewed suspected abuse of paid time.

The hearings come as the Republican-led Congress is taking a critical tone toward many union practices.

Mark D. Rose, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, dismissed Bunning's charges as political theater staged in an election season. Bunning is seeking the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Wendell H. Ford.

'Great offense' taken

"We take great offense to the way he is characterizing the use of 'official time' as union activities," said Rose, whose union represents nearly all Social Security workers, including 10,000 at the agency's Woodlawn headquarters.

"Our people are union employees, who as elected representatives serve on work groups, task forces, redesign teams," he said. Social Security "management, in evaluating what [union workers] do, say they spend almost half of their time on customer service initiatives."

Although they have undertaken efforts to better track what employees do during "official time," Social Security officials also took exception to the critical report. They say the inspector general wrongly counted work done in management-employee "partnerships" as purely union activities. The partnerships are aimed at devising more customer-friendly approaches, in keeping with Vice President Al Gore's efforts to adopt private sector reforms for government agencies.

'Nature of partnership'

"Many of the conclusions drawn by the office of the inspector general in these reports reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of partnership," said Social Security Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel.

That justification isn't good enough, Bunning's aides countered. "It appears that the Social Security Administration has lost control of its work force, harming our ability to serve our senior citizens," Bunning said yesterday. "It's outrageous and it's wrong for people on the public payroll to work for someone else. People who are paid by the taxpayers should work for the taxpayers."

Rep. Rob Portman, a moderate Republican from Ohio who sits on Bunning's subcommittee, sounded a more cautionary note. "My sense isn't to conclude that it's outrageous, yet, but that we don't have the information to know whether or not it is outrageous," he said. "We just need to know more about whether 'official time' is being used properly."

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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