As lawmakers intensify their focus on the cost of the government’s administrative leave policies, the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog released a report Thursday detailing eight employees whose paid absence for four months or longer cost the agency more than $1 million.
Building on an October Government Accountability Office report that found the federal government spent a total of $3.1 billion over three years paying the salaries of employees on administrative leave, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins issued an “early warning” to agency Administrator Gina McCarthy about the rising costs of excused leave for employees under investigation, sometimes for a year or longer.
“Obviously, paying the salaries of federal employees not to work – especially for extended periods of time – raises flags of common concern for GAO, the Congress and an Office of Inspector General,” Elkins wrote. “It is important to assist the EPA’s administrator by bringing this alarming situation to her attention now, as auditors are uncovering it, rather than to wait until their entire review of time and attendance has concluded.”
The EPA IG launched its continuing audit of time and attendance issues in response to a request by lawmakers disturbed by the GAO report. The eight employees in the IG’s sample had accumulated a total of 20,926 hours of administrative leave, which, when multiplied by their pay rates, cost taxpayers an estimated $1,096,868, the watchdog said. Four of the eight employees were on leave with pay for more than a year.
The current status of the employees on administrative leave is unknown, the report said. After the IG met with McCarthy on Oct. 30, she requested further background on the employees for referral to EPA’s Office of Administration and Resources Management.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who is preparing legislation to change administrative leave policies, said in a statement, “The inspector general is right to look at these cases. Taxpayers are paying for a fully functioning workforce, and they should get it. EPA should explain why these employees were on leave for so long. Too often, extended paid leave is an excuse for managers to put off making a decision on whether an employee should be on the job while an administrative action is pending.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Thursday told The Hill, “I can guarantee you we're going to have a hearing about the fact that there are more than 4,000 people on paid administrative leave…. It's like a paid vacation. That's not a partisan issue.”
Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, told Government Executive before the IG report that most investigations of employees on administrative leave can be resolved within 30 to 90 days. “But under the law and the existing process, an adverse action can’t be done based on speculation,” she said. “Sometimes having the employee in the workplace causes more harm than good. Managers are in the best position to make the determination because they know the employees.”
(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)