Federal employees used 58% of special emergency paid leave fund for COVID-19

The emergency paid leave program, which Congress created through the American Rescue Plan, ended last month, but the Office of Personnel Management will continu...

This story was updated on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at 8:15 a.m. to clarify the Defense Finance and Accounting Service’s usage of emergency paid leave. The figure on the leave dashboard below reflects the total number of hours DFAS reported for the majority of the Defense Department, not the payroll provider’s internal workforce alone. 

The federal workforce used just slightly more than half of the funds Congress set aside earlier this year for a special emergency leave program.

The American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed into law in March, created a $570 million emergency paid leave fund that allowed federal employees to take time off for a variety of pandemic-related reasons.

Employees were each eligible for 600 hours, or 15 weeks, of paid leave to quarantine, recover from a personal infection or care for a family member sick with COVID-19. They could also use the emergency paid leave to recover from adverse symptoms after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Office of Personnel Management was responsible for administering the fund on behalf of the executive branch and U.S. Postal Service. OPM formally launched the program at the end of April.

Eligible federal employees had until Sept. 30 to request emergency paid leave, per the sunset date in the American Rescue Plan, or earlier if the funds were exhausted before that date.

“Sept. 30 was the last day that a federal employee could take emergency paid leave under the ARP program,” the agency said in a statement to Federal News Network. “However, claims for leave used on or before that sunset date are still being processed. OPM can make reimbursement payments to agencies from the ARP Fund through September 2022.”

As of Oct. 16, agencies had exhausted slightly more than $330.5 million, or roughly 58% of the ARP fund. About $239.5 million remains in the fund, according to OPM’s latest public report on the status of the ARP funds.

OPM will return whatever funds are remaining by the end of fiscal 2022 to the Treasury, the agency said.

The Postal Service, which usually has its own benefit funds separate from the rest of the federal government, was the heaviest user of the emergency paid leave program. Employees used nearly 10 million hours, according to an OPM dashboard that tracked emergency paid leave throughout government.

Among other agencies, the totals vary widely.

(Source: the Office of Personnel Management’s ARPA Emergency Paid Leave dashboard, last updated Oct. 16.)

Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest government agency behind the Pentagon, used about 357,436 hours of leave, according to OPM’s dashboard.

The Defense Finance Accounting Service, which processes payroll for the Pentagon and other agencies, reported 804,102 hours, a number that reflects leave usage among a majority of DoD employees.

That total includes leave from Army, Air Force and Navy workers, as well as employees from 28 smaller defense agencies, including the DFAS workforce itself.

DFAS employees themselves used about 5,083 hours of emergency paid leave, a spokesman for the payroll provider told Federal News Network Wednesday morning.

Employees at the IRS and Social Security Administration each used more than 300,000 hours.

Agencies went through a different process to approve and pay for these temporary emergency paid leave benefits than prior emergency or traditional programs. Employees first requested emergency paid leave from their agencies, who were supposed to approve it on a conditional basis if they met the eligibility requirements.

Employees could use the leave right away while their agencies requested reimbursement for the time from OPM.

Congress created the emergency paid leave program as many states were still experiencing relatively high COVID caseloads and vaccines weren’t yet available to the vast majority of the American public — and before the Biden administration announced a series of new vaccine policies for federal employees.

The Biden administration has given all executive branch employees until Nov. 22 to be fully vaccinated, though some agencies with their own mandates have set earlier deadlines, like the VA.

While federal employees can no longer request paid time off through the ARP, agencies are supposed to provide their workers with administrative leave to recover from any adverse symptoms after receiving the vaccine and to accompany family members to get their shots, per the administration’s policy.

Because receiving the vaccine is now a job requirement, agencies are no longer handing out administrative leave for employees to get their shots. Employees can now receive their vaccine doses on duty time, according to recently updated guidance from the administration.

Federal employees who can’t receive a vaccine within their usual work hours can do so on overtime, the administration has said.

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