Release time, as it's referred to in all the contracts, is time that a public employee spends doing union work, rather than their public job.
You see, whenever an employee gets into trouble, they're entitled to union representation per the terms of the contracts. That's not really a problem except that the representation is usually by an another employee - a steward or union officer - who needs to be 'released' from their regular duties in order to perform their union one. This release time can be extensive if the charge is major and grievances/appeals of discipline result.
Negotiations are another example of union release time. Employees are 'released' from their regular work duties to participate in negotiations with management.
Quite often, it's not just a single employee. Sometimes it's more than one (especially when the time is for negotiations) and a paid union staff person is also present.
Additionally, sometimes the public employee is given an extended leave of absence in order to serve as a paid employee of the union. Their employment with the city is 'saved' for the period of time they are working for the union. While they get no benefits or pay during that time frame, they have the security of returning to the public position if it turns out they don't like their new job.
Sometimes, union officers are completely 'released' from all public work requirements because their unions are so large as to require full-time work by the officer. In these cases, the employee is paid their salary, earns their benefits and accumulates seniority during the time that they are working 100% for the union.
In Phoenix, the Goldwater Institute has calculated the cost of union release time.
Phoenix taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay full salary and benefits for city employees to work exclusively for labor unions, a Goldwater Institute investigation found.
Collective bargaining agreements with seven labor organizations require the city to pay union officers and provide members with thousands of additional hours to conduct union business instead of doing their government jobs.
The total cost to Phoenix taxpayers is about $3.7 million per year, based on payroll records supplied by the city. In all, more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayers’ expense are permitted in the agreements.
The top officials in all of the unions have regular jobs with the city. But buried in the labor agreements are a series of provisions for those employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.
For top officers, the typical amount of annual release time is 2,080 hours, a full year of work based on 52 weeks at 40 hours each. They continue to draw full pay and benefits, just as if they were showing up for their regular jobs. But they are released from their regular duties to conduct undefined union business.
Union officials say the time is a good investment that leads to a more productive workforce. Critics say it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money.
“It’s shocking,” said Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who has battled with unions that represent city workers over employee pay and his efforts to trim spending. “Taxpayers should not be funding union activities. It should all come out of union dues.”
This investigative report is pretty extensive in documenting the hours and costs of the release time, as well as some of the history of how the release time was established.
There are valid arguments that can be made for such things as releasing union stewards for training on new contracts or for allowing employees charged with discipline to have representation. But over the years, the amount of time as well as the number of public employees who are released has grown.
In many cases, as with the Phoenix councilman quoted above, elected officials voting on the contracts have no clear understanding of the amount of release time or much less the cost. (Though why he hadn't read a contract he voted on is another matter entirely!)
All of Toledo's union contracts contain release time - as do most contracts in other cities and at the state level. It's valid to question how much taxpayer money is being spent to pay for the work the union is doing - work that perhaps union dues should cover instead of the taxpayer.