Government

Bill puts brakes on federal leaves

Sen. Chuck Grassley blames abuse on 'Wild West' atmosphere at federal agencies

(File Photo) Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) talks with his staff as he walks in the basement of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File Photo) Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) talks with his staff as he walks in the basement of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — The days of federal employees being paid by the public to chill out at home for months or even years at a time would be limited under a bipartisan bill that cleared a Senate committee Wednesday.

The practice of administrative leave, investigated last year by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, gives a federal employee time away from the workplace without putting a dent in the employee’s other paid leave or vacation time.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would cut back on the practice.

The practice, also called excused absence, has drawn renewed attention since a 2014 Government Accountability Office report showed that over three years through September 2013, more than 53,000 employees had been on that form of leave for more than a month, and that 263 had been on it for more than a year.

While the leave can be approved for many reasons — ranging from snowstorms to blood donations — in many cases it was used to get the employee away from the office pending discipline.

The report Grassley issued in December said 17 federal agencies spent almost $80.6 million in fiscal 2014 to support employees on paid leave for one month or more.

Grassley blamed a “Wild West environment among agencies” for the hodgepodge of rules allowing it.

Some high-profile federal employees have languished on the paid leave. There was Paul Brachfeld, the former inspector general for the National Archives and Records Administration, who was banned from coming to work for almost two years, but paid his senior executive salary during an investigation of alleged misconduct. (He eventually retired).

There was Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of a controversy of the agency’s treatment of groups seeking tax-exempt status, who was on paid leave for four months after she refused to resign. (She also retired).

And dozens of whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs who reported covered-up patient wait times were sent home after facing retaliation.

Abuse of paid leave is one issue where there is bipartisan agreement: that too many agencies put too many employees on paid time off beyond their regular leave time for too long.

The bill generally would require that an employee be given a temporary assignment, transferred or allowed to work remotely when the agency is conducting an investigation that could lead to discipline or has issued a notice of planned discipline.

If the employee’s continued working would create a safety or certain other problems for the agency, the employee could be put on paid leave during those times.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill when federal employees are sent home for lengthy periods of time,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, a co-sponsor, in introducing the bill last month. “This bill reduces government waste and holds federal agencies accountable while protecting the rights of workers.”

The chairman and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, and Thomas R. Carper, D-Delaware, also are co-sponsors.

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The measure also would require agencies to better account for sending home employees with pay for other purposes, such as severe weather or emergencies.

“Our bill puts strict limits on administrative leave,” Grassley said in a statement. “It makes clear when other forms of paid leave are allowable and when employees should be on the job instead. Paid leave shouldn’t be a crutch for management to avoid making tough personnel decisions or a club for wrongdoers to use against whistleblowers.”

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