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Employees at the Social Security Administration say the agency hasn’t yet made emergency paid sick leave available to them, despite a congressionally-mandated implementation date and assurances from its payroll provider that its customers can, in fact, access these new benefits.
Under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), all federal employees are eligible for up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave if they meet certain coronavirus-related circumstances. Congress included emergency paid sick leave in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which the president signed into law March 18.
Under the law, employees had access to the emergency paid sick leave starting April 1, and the benefits are available through Dec. 31, 2020.
But SSA employees and the unions that represent them say the agency hasn’t explained when they’ll be able to formally request and use emergency paid sick leave benefits under the new law.
“We are working with our payroll provider on implementation of this new legislation and the associated leave balance,” an SSA spokesman wrote in an email to Federal News Network. “In the meantime, employees may continue to take personal leave or request advanced leave when necessary. Additionally, the leave from this legislation may be applied retroactively or used for future needs.”
No doubt, implementing new pay and leave changes isn’t easy. It took agencies and their payroll providers several months last year to implement the 2019 retroactive pay raises for federal employees. It took longer for employees who had received a promotion, new grade or experienced another change in pay status.
Implementing EPSLA is no easy task either. Only employees in certain, coronavirus-related situations are eligible for emergency paid sick leave, and depending on the reason for which they need it, leave benefits may be paid at different rates than their usual rate of pay.
Federal employees who, for example, are taking emergency paid sick leave to care for a sick family member or their children at home from school will receive up to two-thirds of their usual pay.
That poses additional complications for agencies and their payroll providers, who must calculate an employee’s pay by grade, step and locality to comply with the compensation caps in the legislation — and then program those changes into their timekeeping and payroll systems, SSA said.
But the Interior Business Center, which serves as SSA’s payroll provider, said emergency paid sick leave is available.
“All of IBC’s customers’ employees can use EPSLA,” an Interior Business Center spokeswoman told Federal News Network. “IBC has provided guidance to our client agencies about how to code employees’ time sheets using an interim process, while IBC is working to develop new coding in our systems that will precisely calculate the new EPSLA leave payments.”
Still, SSA didn’t give a specific timeline for when emergency paid sick leave would be available, and it doesn’t seem to be using the interim process the Interior Business Center described.
“When our payroll provider’s payroll system is complete, we will be able to account for emergency paid sick leave, and we will continue exploring potential manual options in the interim,” the spokesman said.
In addition, SSA employees can use annual or regular sick leave and change their timesheets later to reflect the new emergency paid sick leave, the agency said.
But workers risk being overpaid for the leave and having to pay a portion of it back to the agency later, said the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents some 2,100 decision writers, legal assistants and attorneys at SSA’s Office of Hearing Operations (OHO).
Unions say the delays are ‘unreasonable’
NTEU said the delay is “unreasonable,” especially given its experience at other agencies where it has members. Both the IRS and Customs and Border Protection have implemented and made emergency paid sick leave available to their employees, the union said.
“While agencies and their payroll providers certainly needed time to implement the new leave provision, it is our conclusion that SSA OHO has taken way too long,” Tony Reardon, NTEU national president, said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Making matters worse, the agency has yet to give employees an update on when the proper payroll codes will be ready or why it is taking so long.”
Sherry Jackson, a vice president with the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, said the programming delays with SSA’s time and attendance system were understandable to an extent, again recalling the the 2019 retroactive pay raise.
But she said the agency is being “apathetic” and hadn’t provided a realistic alternative.
Though SSA had placed some information about emergency paid sick leave on the agency’s internal employee site, Jackson said the details haven’t been widely disseminated to the workforce.
SSA told Federal News Network it first notified employees March 26 of their new benefits under EPSLA. It updated employees two other times on April 3 and 20 with information on how emergency paid sick leave benefits were calculated and how employees may eventually apply the new leave retroactively, the agency spokesman said.
But the lack of specific details on when SSA employees will be able to fully and formally use emergency paid sick leave have caused too much uncertainty, unions said.
“Managers need to know how to respond to questions related to how adjustments will be made if sick leave (paid at full wages) is later amended to reflect emergency paid sick leave,” Christie Saunders, president of NTEU Chapter 224, said in an email to SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, which Federal News Network obtained. “The agency’s lack of guidance has hindered employees’ ability to make informed decisions on using this leave. The emergency paid sick leave available to all eligible federal employees is not simply available at the agency’s discretion.”
Jackson’s members, meanwhile, are exhausting their annual leave to join parent-teacher conferences for their children or to make trips into the office to pick up SSA-issued laptops so they can continue their work at home, she said.
“There’s no direction for people to follow for their rights under this act,” Jackson said. “It’s a disservice for the employees who are trying to balance this situation.”