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Edward Ring

How “Release Time” Causes Taxpayers to Fund Government Unions

Based on an estimated total membership of 1.1 million and average dues per member of around $700, California’s public sector unions collect and spend approximately $800 million per year. The impact of the June 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Janus vs AFSCME may have chopped around $50 million off that annual total, by eliminating the union’s ability to collect agency fees from non-members. Nonetheless, California’s public sector unions still collect a stupefying amount of money every year, and remain one of the most powerful special interests in the state.

The long-term impact of the Janus decision has yet to be felt. Will California’s public sector unions slowly lose membership? Or will they retain or even grow their membership by being more accountable to their members, or, equally likely, by continuing to make quitting the union an exercise in bureaucratic futility so daunting that few try, and even fewer succeed?

The Janus case, and union dues, however, are not the only areas where reformers should direct their attention. While union dues account for the vast majority of total union revenue, another way that taxpayers support public sector unions is through so called “release time.” The total value to California’s public sector unions of the release time subsidy statewide is surprisingly high – just for California’s K-12 public schools, the value of this subsidy could be estimated as high as $100 million per year.

Release time is the practice whereby government employees take time off from their government jobs to work instead for the union. California’s unionized public school districts provide good examples of how this works.

The typical arrangement has two components, “Association Release Time,” and “Presidential Release Time.” The Association Release Time agreement permits the union to recruit agency employees to stop working in their government roles and work for the union instead, while the agency continues to pay all employment costs and has to hire substitutes. Typically the total number of workdays subject to this agreement are limited to between 50 and 200 per year. Sometimes the union covers the cost of the substitutes.

The Presidential Release Time agreement permits the union to remove the union president from their agency job during the term of their presidency. Typically the union will reimburse the agency for half the president’s salary, while the agency will still be responsible for paying 100 percent of the president’s benefits. The agency will also have to find and pay a temporary replacement employee to perform whatever job the union president had been performing prior to taking office.

The process of adding up these costs is not difficult. Searching for the key words “Release Time” on the PDF documents of collective bargaining agreements will quickly lead to the relevant sections. These collective bargaining agreements are found on nearly every California school district website.

Using some of the collective bargaining agreements negotiated for Orange County’s public school districts for examples, the provisions for release time can be found as follows:

  • Agreement Between Capistrano Unified School District and Capistrano Unified Education Association, For the Period July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2019 (page 45-46).
  • Agreement between Irvine Unified School District and Irvine Teachers Association Effective July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2020 (page 52).
  • Saddleback Valley Unified School District Agreement with Saddleback Valley Educators Association, July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2018 (page 9)
  • Newport-Mesa Unified School District Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers  Collective Bargaining Agreement, July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2020 (page 9)

The formula to calculate the annual cost to the school district of presidential release time varies depending on the exact language in the collective bargaining agreement. But here is a representative example:

Annual cost of president’s salary less portion (typically half) reimbursed by the union, plus the cost of the president’s benefits, plus the cost for a full time replacement for the president. Depending on the amount the agency was paying their employee who was diverted to become the union president, and depending on the details in the collective bargaining agreement, the costs to the school district are about $100,000 per year.

The formula to calculate the annual cost to the school district for association release time varies depending on how many release days are authorized, and whether or not the union reimburses the school district for the cost of the necessary substitute employees. A reasonable estimate of these costs would be an additional $50,000 per year. It is important to note that in many cases, especially in California’s larger school districts, the costs to a district for release time may be well in excess of $150,000.

While $150,000 per year may seem an underwhelming amount, in many cases, especially in California’s larger school districts, the costs to a district for release time may be much higher. Moreover, this subsidy is sufficient to handle much of the day to day business of the union, which makes one wonder what all the dues revenue is used for.

Cumulatively, the value of this subsidy is not trivial. In Orange County, for example, there are 28 K-12 school districts. This means that in just this one county, and just in the government subsector of public K-12 education, the union subsidy for release time can be estimated at around $4.2 million per year.

Statewide, given there are 977 K-12 school districts in California, the total value of the release time subsidy could be estimated at well over $100 million per year. And then there are all the other sectors of California’s state and local government agencies where the release time subsidy has been negotiated. Even if only the 186 school districts in California that have over 1,000 enrolled students were paying a subsidy equal to $150,000 per year or more, that would still amount to nearly $30 million per year.

It would be interesting to explore whether taxpayer subsidized union release time is even constitutional, since it represents spending taxpayer money to benefit what is arguably a private interest. The fact that a union represents public employees shouldn’t necessarily mean that union isn’t a private organization. It is unlikely – ok, utterly impossible – that California’s state legislators might consider this possibility, but it remains a legitimate question for the courts.

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