It’s hard to know what Michael Imondi, the president of the police union in Providence, Rhode Island, does all day.
He is carried on the city’s payroll as a police officer in the patrol division, assigned to “Car 76.” He draws full pay and benefits from the city, just like any other cop. And yet he cannot be assigned any specific duties, hours, beats, or posts.
It has been years since Imondi has worked the streets as a regular patrolman. Instead, his job with the city is to work full time for his union, the Fraternal Order of Police’s Providence Lodge #3.
Imondi is on paid union release time. That is the practice whereby government employees are released from their regular jobs to do union work while still drawing full pay and benefits from the taxpayers.
Assigning Imondi to a designated patrol unit is a bit unusual. Allowing him paid release time to work exclusively for the union is not.
The Goldwater Institute identified at least 16 jurisdictions that allow at least one full-time release position when it surveyed the state departments of corrections, capital cities, and largest school districts in each state. That means the sole duty of the people in those positions is to work for their unions.
Many jurisdictions allow more than one union official to be on full-time release. So between them, the 16 jurisdictions have at least 61 government employees who are paid to work exclusively for their unions while still being paid by the taxpayers.
There may be more.
Like Providence, many jurisdictions do not identify full-time release positions clearly in their union contracts. Instead, they cloak the union work under the guise of being departmental labor liaisons or some other euphemism, such as being assigned to Car 76.
In some cases, government employers do not specify how many union officials can be on full-time release. Instead, they allot a bank of thousands of paid hours that union officials can parcel out as they see fit. For instance, in the Miami-Dade School District in Florida, the teachers’ union is allotted about 20,000 hours of paid release time, the annual equivalent of about 10 full-time positions.
Imondi does not see his full-time assignment to the Providence police union as the waste of a trained and experienced police officer or a misuse of taxpayer dollars. In fact, he says, it saves department administrators headaches and the city money in the long run. If he did not have full-time release, then he could be called off his regular patrol shift whenever union business came up. If that happened, a replacement would have to be called in, probably on overtime, to meet minimum staffing quotas, he said.
Imondi said he could be called back to police duty in an emergency, though as far as he knows that hasn’t happened since the late 1990s.
“We are still police officers in the city of Providence,” Imondi said when asked why taxpayer dollars rather than union dues are used to pay his salary and that of the union’s vice president, who is also on full-time release. “We are still in the uniformed division. We are still able to be called in at a moment’s notice, and we are still actively on the job.”
As to what he does all day, Imondi said it varies. Lately he’s been dealing with employee representation and legal protections for police officers in disciplinary actions.
Imondi says he is not required to account for his time to city officials, or to work from any particular location so long as he puts in his eight hours per day.
“To actually put a time stamp on everything we do, we wouldn’t be able to do that,” he said.
City administrators in Providence did not respond to requests for comment. They also do not track the hours and cost of paid release time the city allows its unions.
Best of All Worlds
Full-time release is particularly irksome to those who consider union release time a waste of taxpayer money. Some make allowances for releasing union officials from their regular duties for short spurts to deal with employee grievances or personnel issues, or even during contract negotiations. But to allow full-time release with no defined duties is unnecessary overkill when it comes to lavishing taxpayer dollars on private unions, they say.
“The sensible need for this type of union representation is ultimately a relatively small part of what the unions do,” said Sean Higgins, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who specializes in labor issues. “It’s just a way for the unions to get funding for their officials or their activists or their people to do all manner of things on behalf of the union, and not have that be an expense for the union. That’s the best of all possible worlds for them, which is why they like the system and want to keep it intact.”
Nothing to Lose
Among the frequently cited justifications for release time is that it frees up labor representatives to resolve grievances and disciplinary actions internally and informally. Without it, advocates say, disputes between labor and management would be settled in court, a far more burdensome and expensive process.
But release time, particularly full-time release, creates incentives for unions to pursue petty grievances and protect union members who should be disciplined for misconduct, said Jonathan Riches, national litigation director at the Goldwater Institute.
“If unions were paying their own people, they would be more selective about which cases to pursue and how aggressively to pursue them,” Riches said.
Since the taxpayers are paying their expenses through release time, there is no reason for unions not to pursue a weak grievance, if for no other reason than to put their employers on notice that the unions will fight any action or policy they do not like, he said.
“The evidence seems plain on this point: rather than advancing labor harmony, full-time release often exacerbates conflict because it incentivizes adversarial relations between public employers and labor unions,” Riches said.
Government employees are already protected by federal and state laws, local ordinances and policies, and procedures in collective bargaining agreements that grant them layers of due process rights and appeals. So government-paid union advocates are not needed to protect government workers from unfair treatment, Riches said.
In most jurisdictions, an employee facing discipline can file a formal grievance, triggering a series of procedures, documentation requirements, and deadlines. Decisions they do not like can be appealed internally and, ultimately if necessary, to an outside arbitrator.
In Rhode Island and other states, police officers can also challenge disciplinary actions under what is called the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in state law, which lays out additional protections and procedures. After exhausting all of those, the targeted employee can still challenge any discipline in court.
The result of this cumbersome process coupled with the cost-free union representation is that it is extremely difficult to discipline any public employees for even the most blatant misconduct.
“Under release time, taxpayers are literally footing the bill to set up a system that makes it nearly impossible to punish bad actors and to provide representation to government employees accused of misconduct,” Riches said. “The public should not be paying to ensure problematic employees keep their jobs.”
Phoenix allows 24 people to do nothing but union work while on the city’s payroll.
Part of the Deal
Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, is by far the most generous when it comes to allowing full-time release of top union officials among the jurisdictions surveyed. Its contracts with seven different unions allow a total of 24 people to do nothing but union work while on the city’s payroll.
Phoenix officials would not discuss why so many release positions are needed.
Columbus, the capital of Ohio, allows 10 union officials to be on full-time release, while the Rhode Island Department of Corrections has four.
Many of the union officials and government administrators interviewed had no particular reason as to why so many full-time release positions are allowed. In most cases, the provisions were inserted into collective bargaining agreements decades ago and have remained there since.
“That was something that took place long before I got here, so I don’t know how they got to that position,” Imondi said.
Christopher Moses, labor relations manager in Columbus, said it is just something the unions want and so gets thrown into the mix when contracts are negotiated.
“It’s a negotiated benefit,” he said. “All of our contracts are sort of made up of hundreds of bargains, of quid pro quos during bargaining, so to speak. You propose something and I propose something, and we sort of reach an agreement. Union release and that practice has been around for a long time.”
Isn’t That ‘Special’
Identifying full-time release positions in union contracts is usually pretty simple, but not always. Typically, collective bargaining agreements, including those in Phoenix, have separate provisions for full-time paid release positions and for government-paid banks of hours.
Things get more complicated when certain jurisdictions allow top union officials to exclusively do union work but do not call it union release time.
In Nashville, the presidents of the police and fire unions are given temporary “special” assignments as city-paid liaisons to management on labor issues, and are released from most other duties. Both continue to receive full salaries and are treated as they would if they had regular assignments in terms of pay raises, promotion, and retirement.
Nashville officials did not provide data on the hours and cost of release time, and refused to explain their contracts.
James Smallwood, president of the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police, has been the union’s liaison to the chief and therefore effectively on full-time release for the past four years. Much of his time is spent on things that are mutually beneficial to the union and to the city, so it is a good investment for taxpayers, he said.
The union regularly holds training sessions and maintains wellness programs for its officers, Smallwood said. He also spends a lot of his time talking to union lawyers and meeting with the police chief or other city administrators to resolve workplace problems such as grievances about working conditions or discrimination complaints. That benefits both front-line officers and the city as a whole, he said.
“We are promoting better benefits for all of our employees. And that’s going to promote a more professional, more accountable, more transparent police department, which certainly directly benefits the taxpayers,” Smallwood said. “So while some may try to villainize our actions, we are at the forefront of trying to ensure that we have the best training, the best equipment, the best benefits, and the best pay—that we are competitive in every market so that we can have the best and brightest candidates participating, and that we can promote a more professional environment. When you do that, we obviously benefit the end user, which is the community that we serve.”
Smallwood added that he is required to maintain his police certification, and has been called in to respond to calls in an emergency. He also said he is required to keep the police chief informed as to how he is spending his time.
That would be unusual. Few jurisdictions require any sort of accounting of how union officials on full-time release spend their days.
“We can’t get involved in ‘Hey, what are you doing at the union hall?’” said Moses, the human resources manager in Columbus. “It sort of borders on ‘You are interfering with the union’s business there.’”
Fishing, Golfing, Fights, and Headaches
In a few instances, though, union officials on release have been asked to publicly explain what they do all day.
A 2019 investigation by NJ Advance Media revealed more than half of the police force in Franklin Township, New Jersey, had used union release time, some of it for such things as padding their vacations and to attend a golf tournament. Among the other reasons listed for taking release time was “headache.”
A lawsuit brought by the Goldwater Institute challenging union release time in Austin, Texas, revealed the president of the Austin Firefighters Association uses about 30% of his full-time release for lobbying and political activity, which includes making endorsements and arranging to have yard signs put up for candidates seeking elected offices. This despite a prohibition in the city charter and policies specifically barring city officials from using city time to aid local political candidates.
Other members of the firefighters union used release time under the broad category of “other association business” to attend boxing events and a fishing derby.
The union president even used city-paid release time to fight a disciplinary complaint against himself, according to court documents.
Because union officials on full-time release are typically not required to account for how they spend their time, such antics are rarely exposed unless they are documented in lawsuits or the abuse is so blatant it attracts media attention.
Nothing to See Here
The most comprehensive review of release time at the local level was done by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation for a report published in 2012, which studied the release time practices in 170 cities, counties, school districts, and state agencies. The commission documented the same flaws identified by the Goldwater Institute, including widespread lack of accountability as to how people on full-time release spend their days.
Many jurisdictions allow full-time release without ever putting it on paper and with little or no legal authority, the commission found.
State investigators identified two instances in which police union presidents were on paid full-time leave, even though administrators in the cities they worked for claimed those release positions did not exist.
That is a particular problem since state law did not permit any form of extended union release for police.
However, multiple jurisdictions got around that prohibition with creative language such as assigning union officials to work full time as labor-relations representatives “in what can be construed as a de facto form of full-time union leave.”
This is akin to union officials in Providence, Rhode Island, being assigned to “Car 76.”
A common thread binds the failure of state and local governments to clearly define full-time release positions, make union officials account for how they spend their time, and track the hours and cost: It is easier for government officials to give the unions what they want rather than risk labor troubles, said Higgins of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“The argument they will make is that this is an efficiency and labor peace thing,” Higgins said. “Of course the labor peace thing is the sort of ‘Look, nice situation you have here. It’d be a shame if you had more strikes and more unrest, so why don’t you just give us this concession and nothing will happen.’ That’s essentially what labor peace means.”
So the bottom line, according to Higgins:
“If you give someone 100% of their time off to do union activities, they’re going to take 100% of their time to do union activities. The supposed amount of union duties that they have expands to meet the amount of time they can get.”
Note: The Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the practice of release time in the City of Phoenix. That case is pending.