OPM will allow certain federal employees to hold on to unused annual leave during pandemic

The Office of Personnel Management has a plan to help certain federal employees, whose essential services are needed to respond to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, hold on to the annual leave they’d otherwise have to forfeit at the end of the year.

Recent guidance from OPM described the agency’s intent to issue new regulations on the topic.

The forthcoming regulations will deem the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as an “exigency of the public business” for the purposes of restoring forfeited annual leave.

Specifically, the regulations will allow employees who have annual leave balances that exceed the usual statutory carryover limit to “schedule” that excess leave and therefore, have it restored.

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“Agency heads will be required to identify any employees covered under this annual leave restoration authority and inform them in writing of this designation,” Michael Rigas, acting OPM director and acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a new memo issued to agencies Thursday night. “This means that agencies and their employees will not be faced with the administrative burden of scheduling, canceling and restoring such leave for these employees at a time when all available attention and energy should be focused on the national emergency.”

But OPM’s forthcoming regulations on annual leave will apply to federal employees only in specific circumstances.

Federal employees who, for example, called off a week-long trip abroad and then canceled their vacation time won’t be allowed to restore annual leave under OPM’s forthcoming regulations.

“An employee’s decision to cancel annual leave he or she had previously scheduled or to not schedule annual leave due to the cancellation of vacation or travel plans because of COVID-19 restrictions, does not constitute an exigency of the public for the purposes of restoration of annual leave,” the guidance reads.

Instead, OPM encouraged agencies to ensure their employees are taking their time off before it expires. OPM can’t change the statutory limitations on carry-over leave because it doesn’t have the authority, Rigas said.

Under statute, most federal employees can carry up to 30 days of leave to the following year, though some can accrue more. Any accrued leave that exceeds the statutory limit is usually lost.

But agencies can restore “use or lose” leave under certain circumstances, such as an administrative error, employee sickness or an “exigency of the public business.” This occurs when there’s a “pressing need for an employee’s service and the agency must cancel the employee’s pre-approved annual leave because there are no other practical alternatives available to accomplish the work by a given deadline,” OPM said.

Usually, agencies can only restore forfeited leave to an employee under an “exigency of public business” if it was scheduled in writing before the start of the third biweekly pay period before the end of the leave year.

The latest OPM guidance comes as some lawmakers have recognized the pandemic’s potential impact on federal employees and their annual leave balances.

A bill from Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), which she introduced last month, would have also declared the ongoing pandemic an “exigency of public business” for the purposes of annual leave lost during the health crisis.

Though her bill was relatively light on the details, it would have restored annual leave, regardless of whether it was scheduled, to employees responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pentagon also issued related guidance on leave for military members back in April. But the Defense Department policy differs from the regulations OPM is planning. DoD is allowing active-duty members to accrue more leave than usual— anywhere from 60 to 120 days — and hold on to it through 2023.

DoD’s stop-move orders clearly prevented service-members from using their annual leave during the pandemic, Matthew Donovan, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, had said.