By MARSHA MERCER
Here we go again, taxpayers. Get your mad on.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office reinforces a popular idea: We’re paying tens of thousands of federal employees not to work.
It gets worse. The workers are staying home for months and even years, often while the government slowly investigates charges of misbehavior.
Employees receiving paid administrative leave continue to accrue vacation and sick leave, retirement and other benefits – as well as salary.
The vast majority of federal workers take modest amounts of administrative leave, but 263 employees received pay for one to three years while at home, at a salary cost estimated at $31 million, GAO said in its report, “Federal Paid Administrative Leave,” released Monday.
That’s an outrage, and it should prompt immediate personnel policy reforms to insure that workers’ rights and taxpayers are both protected. Instead, members of Congress bluster. Nothing changes – except that taxpayers become more disillusioned. That’s a shame.
The U.S. government must find a way to restore trust, protect workers’ rights and handle personnel issues in a timely way.
A bit of background: Federal workers have many ways to be away from the office. Besides paid administrative leave, they can take annual leave, sick leave, leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, donated leave under voluntary leave transfer programs and military leave.
Paid administrative leave is an excused absence that kicks in when, for example, snow falls in the capital or an agency head dismisses employees early the day before a federal holiday. Workers can use it if they’re tardy. It can be used in the “rare circumstances” when an employee’s presence might pose a threat in the workplace or to federal property, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
In practice, supervisors use extended leave to put personnel problems out of sight and mind. The GAO found that 57,000 employees – 3 percent of all federal workers -- were sent home with paid administrative leave for at least a month in the three years from 2011-13. The Washington Post estimated the cost of those salaries alone at $775 million.
Still, 97 percent of federal workers took 20 days or fewer paid administrative leave and 90 percent took fewer than 10 days in the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013, according to GAO.
For its study, GAO analyzed payroll records generally and then selected for review five agencies that use large amounts of administrative leave. They were the Departments of Defense, Interior and Veterans Affairs; the General Services Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Each federal agency sets its own paid administrative leave policies and reporting practices. Some common activities are covered – such as voting and donating blood – but there are wide variations.
Defense and USAID give paid administrative leave for rest and recuperation to employees who serve six months in Afghanistan; other agencies do not. Air Force commanders allow civilian employees to work out three hours during the week using administrative leave.
The hodgepodge of rules and situations is unfair to the employees who actually do their jobs – and have to pick up the workload of those who are staying home with pay.
Unfortunately, the GAO report is being used to fuel anti-federal government sentiment – as if we needed more. Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Darrell Issa of California requested the study.
Coburn showcased paid administrative leave as the top item in his latest “Wastebook” catalog of wasteful spending, released Wednesday.
“Bureaucrats Gone Wild `Punished’ with Paid Vacations,” Wastebook trumpeted. It cited a dozen cases of workers who were placed on paid administrative leave in various scandals, ranging from drunk Secret Service agents in Amsterdam to the IRS official accused of discriminating against tea party groups that sought tax exempt status.
Wastebook says that a federal employment attorney calls administrative leave “the government’s dirty little secret.”
But it’s hardly a secret. The Post and other news organizations have reported for years on officials facing disciplinary action who are sidelined with pay.
Yet nothing ever gets done about it. Perhaps that’s because even this amount of outrage gets lost in a $3.8 trillion federal budget. But it looks like a great place to start. We deserve better.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.