Federal Workers Paid $80 Million to Stay Home

Senator Calls Out Abuse of Paid Administrative Leave

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Thousands of federal government employees were paid more than $80 million during 2014 alone to just stay home while facing charges of misconduct, according to a senior member of Congress.

Calling the system “ripe for abuse,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) went off on the long-used government practice of placing employees facing disciplinary action on paid administrative leave.

As one more reason federal employees are hard to fire, the paid administrative leave process allows employees to remain on the federal payroll while their alleged acts of wrongdoing are investigated, sometime for months, at their agency’s discretion.

Or as the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) puts it, “Administrative leave (also referred to as “excused absence”) is an administratively authorized absence from duty without loss of pay or charge to leave.”

But as Sen. Grassley summed up his opinion of administrative leave in his statement to the Judiciary Committee, “Its costs are high, and its benefits dubious.”

Taking the Easy Way Out?

Basically, Sen. Grassley has big problems with administrative leave. “Its costs are high, and its benefits dubious,” he stated in a report to the full Judiciary Committee. “Agencies are able to place an employee on administrative leave simply to avoid addressing an uncomfortable—or potentially even unjustifiable—personnel action.”

Grassley began waging war on administrative leave in October 2014, after an audit by the Government Accountability Office showed that from 2010 through 2013, about 53,000 federal employees were paid to stay home for periods ranging from one month to three years at a cost to taxpayers of more than $700 million.

The GAO audit revealed that paid administrative leave for fiscal years 2011 - 2013 totaled nearly $3.1 billion. Salary estimates for the 263 employees who remained on paid leave for between one and three years totaled $31 million.

“Overall,” wrote Sen. Grassley, “GAO concluded that since taxpayers bear the cost of paid administrative leave, government agencies should more effectively manage its use.”

High-Profile Examples of Abuse

In his statement, Grassley reminded his fellow lawmakers of three extreme cases of abusive and wasteful use of administrative leave that received considerable media attention.

  • In the midst of its patient waiting time – secret patient waiting list scandal, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) placed involved employees on paid administrative leave during the entire investigation. At the same time, the VA retaliated against dozens of VA employees who reported the secret waiting lists by placing them on paid leave. Many of those employees remain on paid leave today, pending negotiated settlements with the VA, noted Sen. Grassley.
     
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) placed its former Inspector General on leave for two years, continuing to pay his senior executive level salary while awaiting the outcome of two separate outside investigations into a host of allegations of misconduct made against him by NARA employees. He was eventually allowed to retire.
     
  • Last, but far from least, when Lois Learner, the Internal Revenue Service official grilled for her involvement in the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status refused to resign, she was placed on paid leave for four months. She too was allowed to retire.

No Real Rules on Paid Leave

One thing that really bugs Sen. Grassley is the lack of any overriding federal regulation clearly defining “administrative leave” or spelling out when and how it can be used.

“In the absence of statutory mandates, only limited government-wide direction on administrative leave exists. OPM (Office of Personnel Management), the agency designated to manage the federal workforce, permits agencies to use administrative leave for a limited time and for multiple reasons,” he wrote.

The rather vague OPM guidelines suggest that agencies should use administrative leave should only in “rare circumstances” in which allowing an employee to remain at work might endanger other employees or “result in loss of or damage to government property.” In all other cases, the OPM recommends the employee should remain on “duty status in his or her regular working position”

However, a Judiciary Committee investigation of 19 agencies launched in October 2014 showed that the agencies’ reasons for placing employees on administrative leave for more than a year were so “broad and vague” that the committee was unable to whether it was actually necessary.

“We found that agencies appear to be using administrative leave as a way to place employees in a catch-all limbo status rather than address personnel problems expeditiously,” stated Sen. Grassley in his report. “With no clear standard, agencies’ use of paid administrative leave is largely unchecked and ripe for abuse.”

VA, Homeland Security Use Paid Leave the Most

According to data provided to the Justice Committee, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) led all other agencies in spending on paid leave during 2014.

Out of the governmentwide total of $80.6 million paid out in 2014, the DHS spent about $1.8 million paying 88 employees to stay home, four for three years or longer and another 17 for at least two years.

Of the 88 DHS employees placed on paid leave, 53 had been charged with “misconduct,” 13 had security clearance problems and 22 others were under investigation of the general fitness for duty.

The VA, however led all agencies by placing a whopping 2,500 employees on paid leave for at least one month in 2014.

While the VA failed to calculate its total administrative leave expenditure, the Judiciary Committee estimated it a nearly $23 million.

Perhaps worst of all, the VA admitted that it does not track the reasons it places employees on paid leave.

Oh yes, the Department of Defense refused to provide the Judiciary Committee with any information about its use of paid leave.

“Therefore,” wrote Sen. Grassley, “the almost $80.6 million may not reflect the overall amount expended on administrative leave in fiscal year 2014.” 

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Longley, Robert. "Federal Workers Paid $80 Million to Stay Home." ThoughtCo, Jan. 27, 2016, thoughtco.com/federal-workers-paid-millions-to-stay-home-3321199. Longley, Robert. (2016, January 27). Federal Workers Paid $80 Million to Stay Home. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-workers-paid-millions-to-stay-home-3321199 Longley, Robert. "Federal Workers Paid $80 Million to Stay Home." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-workers-paid-millions-to-stay-home-3321199 (accessed November 20, 2017).