For federal employees struggling to balance their work — both in person and remote — and their childcare responsibilities, the pandemic has posed especially tough challenges, and there’s no relief in sight.
But a coalition of organizations representing federal managers and senior executives say there’s a solution at government’s fingertips, and many agencies already have practice using it.
“Due to the ongoing management challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents for our workforce, the Government Managers Coalition believes the federal government would benefit from the establishment of an emergency leave transfer program (ELTP) both as a management tool and as a means by which to support our workforce,” the organizations said in a recent letter to Michael Rigas, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. “An ELTP would be a novel solution, especially for employees with caregiving responsibilities affected by school and daycare closures.”
Under an emergency leave transfer program, federal employees can donate unused annual leave to their colleagues who are adversely impacted by a major disaster. Employees who are impacted by a national emergency can apply in writing to become recipients of the donated leave.
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It’s up to each agency to determine who’s eligible and then facilitate the leave donation and transfer process, but it’s up to OPM to establish a governmentwide program and give agency heads the authority to carry it out.
OPM last established an emergency leave transfer program during the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian last fall. The agency has set up similar programs after recent hurricanes and wildfires in 2018 and 2017.
Now, a group of five organizations representing federal managers say the current pandemic and national health crisis demonstrates the need for a similar emergency leave transfer program.
“If we’re going to treat Covid as a disaster along the lines of qualifying for FEMA [assistance] or the Defense Production Act, then why not consider it an emergency for the purposes of an emergency leave transfer program?” Chad Hooper, president of the Professional Managers Association, said in an interview with Federal News Network.
PMA, which represents managers at the IRS, is one of five organizations calling for an emergency leave transfer program. The others include the Federal Managers Association, the Federal Aviation Administration Managers Association, the National Council of Social Security Management Associations and the Senior Executives Association.
“For the employees, this would allow parents who are in a pickle to seek leave transfers, and it would come from people like me,” Hooper said of an emergency leave transfer program. “I am not a parent, and I can’t go anywhere. I have a ton of annual [leave], and I could give it to someone.”
From the agencies’ perspective, an emergency leave transfer program might help their workforces better manage and maintain operations as employees rush to use up their annual leave before it expires.
OPM earlier this summer established a new process for certain “essential” employees working through the pandemic to hold on to the annual leave they’d otherwise to have forfeit at the end of the year. But the policy doesn’t apply to federal employees whose travel plans have been canceled due to the pandemic and its restrictions.
“I as a manager am worried about next year or in fiscal year 2022 when the world resumes, and now all of my staff have 480 hours of annual [leave] on the books and they all need to spend it,” Hooper said. “We’re going to have this period of time with excessive leave usage because all of these rules. This is another way for people to spend down those balances now.”
Some agencies have offered additional flexibilities to their employees with caregiving responsibilities throughout the pandemic, but Hooper said they mostly tend to benefit those who are more highly compensated or have jobs that are conducive to telework.
Many agencies including the IRS are offering “maxi-flex” hours, where employees who need to spend several hours during the day caring for their children, for example, complete their work early in the morning or late at night.
Those flexibilites are helpful for parents who can work from home, Hooper said, but they provide little benefit to employees who must go into the office and monitor their children’s online kindergarten classes at the same time — unless they’ve secured rare and expensive daycare.
Even federal employees who are working from home but have inflexible jobs and hours could benefit from such a program, the Government Managers Coalition said. The IRS, Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs, among others, operate their own customer service hotlines and other services.
“The maxi-flex telework ability doesn’t help any single person who answers the phone for us,” Hooper said. “Although we did find a way for a lot of them to work remotely, the phones are open for a certain number of hours a day. Our taxpayers need to be able to call us, and it’s not like a phone assistant can take phone calls at one in the morning after their kids are asleep. We’re not open.”
Some agencies are also offering their employees with caregiving responsibilities up to 20 hours of administrative leave a pay period. But it’s up to each agency to decide whether it will offer that flexibility.
Hooper said the IRS explored whether it could offer a similar benefit to employees. But it’s up to the Treasury Department to grant that authority to the service, and it declined to do so, he said.
The circumstances surrounding the pandemic have, in essence, created “a tale of two IRSes,” Hooper said.
On one hand, a portion of the workforce can lean into existing flexibilities, and managers are allowing their employees to shift their schedules and juggle their work days around their children’s schooling and other needs.
“I know that’s not ideal, but there is a group of people like me who can do that and are doing that, and it’s working,” Hooper said.
But on the other hand, other employees within the agency are bound by inflexible work hours and tasks — regardless of their responsibilities at home.
“Those leaders are stuck. All they can say is, ‘I’m sorry, you have to use your own leave.’ That’s a terrible feeling for a manager,” Hooper said. “[It seems] insensitive, to hear and see your employee hurting and not have any other way to work it out.”