GOP to agencies: Why do you pay employees not to work?

Following a report that the government has spent $3.1 billion in paid administrative leave for employees over a three-year period, some congressional Republicans are demanding explanations from agencies and threatening to introduce legislation to curb the practice.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) Tuesday fired off letters to 17 agencies demanding to know why they had let some employees take a year or more of paid administrative leave. The lawmakers want “detailed narratives” about each of those employees, including their positions, grade levels, offices and compensation while on leave. They also want to know why those employees were not given new assignments or required to take unpaid leave.

By using paid administrative leave, federal employees can keep drawing salaries and benefits even though they are not at work. According to a new Government Accountability Office report, 70 percent of federal employees used such leave for five or fewer days between fiscal 2011 and 2013. But a notable handful — 263 across the government — spent at least a year on what amounted to an excused, paid absence from work that cost the government a total of $31 million. Those employees most likely were being investigated for personnel matters, such as alleged wrongdoing, according to agency officials interviewed by GAO. That stoked the ire of Grassley and Issa, who say agencies should be quicker to fire employees accused of misconduct.

The employees on extended leave are taking “taxpayer-funded vacations,” said Issa. He has been an outspoken critic of the IRS for putting former executive Lois Lerner on paid administrative leave while it investigated allegations that her office mishandled conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.

“Gross overuse of paid administrative leave wastes taxpayer funds and underscores dysfunctional agency management that often prefers to dither on personnel problems rather than expeditiously resolve them,” Issa said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Grassley pointed to high-profile examples of federal employees who were on paid leave despite being accused of wrongdoing. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives put several employees on paid leave while investigating a controversial gun-tracking program. One of the employees joined the investment bank JPMorgan Chase in the Philippines while still receiving his federal salary. In another example, the National Archives and Records Administration put former Inspector General Paul Brachfeld on paid leave for nearly two years before announcing it would remove him for misconduct. Brachfeld retired before he could be fired.

Grassley is working with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to draft legislation that would force agencies to decide whether an employee is dangerous, and thus must be removed from the workplace. If not, the agency would have to give the employee a new job.

In addition to personnel actions, other common reasons agencies gave for granting extensive amounts of paid administrative leave to employees included exercise and job-related travel. In 5 percent of the most extreme cases reviewed by GAO, agencies could not provide a reason.

Agencies also may be using paid administrative leave to retaliate against whistleblowers, Grassley said.

With no law to guide them, agencies’ policies vary

This is the first time GAO has conducted an extensive review of agencies’ policies on paid administrative leave. Auditors focused on five agencies where employees took “higher-than-average” amounts of such leave. They included the departments of Defense, Interior and Veterans Affairs, as well as the General Services Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

VA had the most employees — 46 — on paid administrative leave for at least a year. It placed nearly 6,000 employees, or about 2 percent of its staff, on leave for at least a month during the three-year period. In response to the report, the department is reviewing its policies as it prepares to launch a new time-keeping system.

All of the agencies gave employees paid time off for voting, donating blood and taking physical exams required for work. Other common reasons included hazardous weather, such as snowstorms or hurricanes, or — in the case of veterans — participating in a military funeral. Most of the agencies also gave employees paid time off for other activities related to their work. Those included moving from one duty station to another, attending training or conferences, participating in some official union activities, receiving counseling in an agency-related program, and attending government ceremonies or parades.

But in other cases, agencies’ policies varied widely in the absence of a law. DoD and USAID both give employees who had served at least six months in Afghanistan paid administrative leave for rest and recuperation. (The State Department does as well, although it was not included in GAO’s review.) Even within a department, GAO found discrepances. At DoD, the Air Force is the only military service that lets some of its civilian employees take up to three hours of paid leave per week to exercise. GSA had a similar policy on exercise until earlier this year.

The Office of Personnel Management has given agencies little guidance on administering leave. For example, OPM says employees being investigated for alleged misconduct must have at least 30 days’ notice before being removed or fired from their position. Agencies may use paid administrative leave to keep such employees from returning to work while their cases are pending, especially if the agency considers them dangerous.

But agencies told GAO that OPM should give them and payroll providers more direction on managing leave. Payroll discrepancies accounted for wide variations among agencies in the use of paid administrative leave. For example, nine of the largest agencies record federal holidays as administrative leave, although others did not. Given the inconsistencies across the government, GAO cautioned against drawing conclusions or making policy decisions based on the data.

OPM acknowledged it could do a better job of clarifying how agencies should count holidays. It says agencies may be working with outdated payroll systems that do not comply with its latest requirements. It also plans to form a working group to study errors and discrepancies in the payroll data it receives from agencies.

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