Release Time: Diverting Public Resources to Unions

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In Pennsylvania, government unions enjoy a number of legal and political privileges. Among these government-granted privileges is the practice of “release time,” which permit government unions to utilize public resources to support their private operations.

What is Release Time?

  • Release time (described as “official time” at the federal level) allows government employees to take a leave of absence from their jobs to perform union work.
  • In many cases, the government employees working for the union are paid by taxpayers while still accruing benefits (seniority, pensions) as if they were working in the public sector.
  • According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the legal authority for release time varies by state. The practice may be allowable under law or negotiated into collective bargaining agreements at the state or local level.
  • Just as the legal authority for release time varies, the practice itself takes many forms, depending on the state. Generally, release time can be categorized in three ways:
    • Full-Release Time: Allows public employees to leave their job for an extended period (often years) for the express purpose of doing union work while still accruing their public sector benefits.
    • Bank Hours: Unions can employ government employees for a certain number of hours to perform union work.
    • Activity-Specific Release Time: Entitles unions to employ government workers for specifically designated tasks related to the operation of the union. These tasks can include attending contract negotiations or union conferences.

Release Time in Pennsylvania

  • The practice of release time varies in Pennsylvania. While state law does not provide for release time, it is a benefit negotiated into collective bargaining agreements.
  • In Philadelphia, the collective bargaining agreement governing employment relations between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the School District of Philadelphia contains a provision allowing up to 63 employees to perform union work while still accruing publicly-provided benefits.
    • Although the PFT reimburses the school district for costs associated with release time, it is not required to do so by the collective bargaining agreement, allowing the PFT to halt reimbursements to the school district at any time.
    • While the PFT voluntarily reimburses the school district, it does not reimburse state government for the state share of pension costs for release time designees.
  • In Pittsburgh, the collective bargaining agreement between the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Pittsburgh Board of Public Education allows for a maximum of 14 teachers to be elected or appointed to full-time positions with the Federation. No more than 6 teachers may be released to the union at one time.
  • At the state level, the collective bargaining agreement of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) grants union officials a three-year leave of absence without pay and up to six weeks for release time designees who attend official union conventions.
  • Those leaving for union work can continue to accrue seniority and the benefits accompanying it just as they would if they were working in their public sector jobs.

Release Time Outside of Pennsylvania

Taxpayer-Financed Union Work at the Federal Level

  • Official time—the federal government’s version of release time—cost taxpayers $155 million in 2011—the latest year data is available.
    • Federal employees spent an estimated 3.4 million hours on union work, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
  • Official time has come under greater scrutiny after it was reported that hundreds of employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were working for their union while other employees at the VA were hiding documents pertaining to the backlog of patient appointments.
  • When combining the cost of release time at the state and local level with official time at the federal level, the total cost of taxpayer-financed union work is approximately $1 billion a year, according to the Capital Research Center.


  • Lawmakers should seek to prohibit private organizations like unions from using public resources to finance and run their operations.
    • If a private organization wishes to hire public employees to perform union work, no public benefits should be provided to employees during this time, and the union should be responsible for all compensation.

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For more information on Release Time and Labor Policy, visit