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December 8 2015

Nice "Work" If You Can Get It: Misbehaving Governments Workers Paid $80 Mil to Stay at Home

Patrice J. Lee

 

The dignity of work is something that inspires so many American workers. There is so much fulfillment that comes with collecting a paycheck when you know that you have put in a full day's work and have something of value to show for your efforts.

Except if you’re one of the thousands of federal workers who are getting paid to sit at home. The reason is that they have allegedly misbehaved on the job.

According to a new congressional report, federal agencies paid out $80.6 million last year to thousands of workers on paid administrative leave. The Veterans Administration  paid for 2,500 employees placed on leave and the agency even acknowledges that it didn’t track documentation properly. The Department of Homeland Security spent nearly $1.8 million to keep 88 employees on paid leave. More than half of those faced misconduct charges.

Federal agencies are using paid administrative leave as a way of dealing with personnel matters rather than actually addressing them. Furthermore, documentation of why administrative leave and extensions were doled out is sketchy. This gives apparent wrong-doers an expense- paid vacation while they await other disciplinary action or charges. Meanwhile, whistleblowers are kept off duty without any recourse since paid leave is not appealable.

The problem is that supervisors have broad discretion in putting employees on leave. That makes it possible for employees who have allegedly committed violations of government rules and laws to be given paid time off. Furthermore, these same employees could be challenging demotions or other punishments and in effect are being paid to do so. 

The Washington Post explains:

“Agencies are able to place an employee on administrative leave simply to avoid addressing an uncomfortable—or potentially even unjustifiable—personnel action,” the report concludes. “Maintaining this status quo serves neither the taxpayer nor the employee.”

Grassley has worked for more than a year to highlight the practice of extended paid leave, whose widespread use was disclosed for the first time by the Government Accountability Office in October 2014. The GAO audit, first made public by The Washington Post, found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 of them were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $700 million.

Paid leave is supposed to be used only in rare circumstances when an employee poses a physical threat in the workplace.

The report makes several no-brainer recommendations to federal agencies such as ensuring better documentation and tracking of administrative leave and strengthening congressional oversight of administrative leave. At a minimum, Congress needs to explicitly authorize and define administrative leave so that it cannot be used willy-nilly. It also recommends that agencies use other options to deal with personnel issues from temporary reassignments to suspensions for serious misconduct and limiting paid administrative to specific purposes and short-term duration. In essence, paid admin leave should not be the hammer to every nail. In addition, administrative leave should not be used as response to genuine allegations lodged by whistleblowers.

The report concludes:

Although OPM policy encourages limited use of administrative leave for brief durations, agencies frequently place employees on administrative leave for many months or years at a time.  Too often agencies use administrative leave to address personnel matters.  Agencies place employees on paid administrative leave while disciplinary action remains pending, or while conducting an investigation for misconduct.  Although some agencies, such as the Department of Justice, require documented approval of such leave, the Department’s time limits are often extended, and many agencies did not provide evidence of similar efforts to document approvals for the use of administrative leave and any extensions.  The State Department does not report any administrative leave to OPM.  

Many agencies’ explanations of extended administrative leave were vague and incomplete... The lack of any definite and consistent limits on the use of paid administrative leave, coupled with inconsistent or insufficient justification, creates an environment ripe for abuse and derails meaningful oversight...  Maintaining this status quo serves neither the taxpayer nor the employee.  Its costs are high, and its benefits dubious...

Hearing how much of our taxpayer dollars are used to compensate public servants who choose to abuse the public trust is nauseating. When we consider that millions of Americans are unemployed in this economy, I can't help but wonder how it is the good workers are locked out of opportunities while certain abusers are rewarded.

This is a systemic issue that requires systemic solutions. Changes in leadership are only part of the solution. As the report notes, it will take the federal HR office the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Congress, federal employees, agencies themselves, and taxpayers working together under a "more coherent and united framework" in use to deal with misconduct. At every level it should be understood that administrative leave should not be reached for as the easy or convenient solution. We cannot continue to allow public resources to be wasted as government shirks it's responsibility to hold wrong-doers accountable. 

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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