This story has been updated.
The Office of Personnel Management on Friday will publish the final rule implementing a law that gives new federal employees who are disabled veterans the equivalent of a full year’s sick leave up front to go to their medical appointments.
The 2015 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act gives 104 hours of leave immediately to first-year feds who are vets with a service-connected disability rating of at least 30 percent to attend medical appointments related to their disability. It applies to those hired on, or after Nov. 5, 2016, and lasts for 12 months from the date of hire, or the effective date of the employee’s qualifying service-connected disability—whichever is later.
“This rule ensures the federal government supports our service members who have sacrificed their own health and well-being to serve our country. We know this is something they need,” said acting OPM Director Beth Cobert in a statement on Thursday. “We want these veterans to have sufficient leave during their first year of federal service in order to take care of any medical issues related to their service-connected disability.”
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In addition to eligible new federal hires, the law also will apply to eligible disabled vets who once worked in the federal government, left, and were rehired (with at least a 90-day break in service) to a civil service job on or after Nov. 5, when the law takes effect, according to OPM. Federal employees who take a break from their civilian jobs to serve in the military and are injured during that service also would be eligible for disabled veteran leave when they return to their civilian jobs. For disabled vets in those categories, the amount of leave they receive for medical appointments would be offset by any existing sick leave they had. So, if the disabled vet is re-employed with the government and has 30 hours of existing sick leave from his prior job, then his disabled veteran leave bank would include 74 hours to attend medical appointments related to his service-connected injury.
The Federal Managers Association, which helped bring the issue of leave for disabled veterans to the attention of lawmakers, praised OPM and Cobert's leadership in drafting the final rule. "The rule not only remains loyal to the congressional intent of the bill, but also extends the new leave to the broadest number of potentially eligible disabled veterans," said FMA National President Renee Johnson.
OPM also said it would calculate the correct number of leave hours for those eligible disabled vets who are part-time or seasonal employees, since the 104-hour benefit is based on a full-time employee’s work schedule.
OPM said it would encourage agencies to make new employees aware of the benefit, and “in the coming weeks” would provide more information to agencies to ensure they know how to implement the new leave category.
The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act directs agencies to create a separate leave category – apart from regular sick leave – for eligible employees. During their first year on the job, those vets would still accumulate their normal sick leave. The employees only would be able to use their disabled veteran leave for treatments directly related to their service and would not be able to carry over the one-time “wounded warrior leave” after the first 12 months on the job.
The benefit under the law applies only to those newly-hired feds who are covered under Title 5 leave provisions, and includes employees of the Postal Service and Postal Regulatory Commission. Non-Title 5 disabled veteran employees, including those at the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration, are not eligible for the new benefit. Many jobs at the Veterans Affairs Department, for instance, also are not covered under Title 5. Title 5 governs most, but not all, of the federal personnel system.
Prior to the new law, full-time federal workers in their first year on the job did not have access to sick leave until they had been in the job long enough to earn the benefit, typically accruing four hours of such leave per pay period. That amounts to a balance of 104 hours at year's end. But disabled vets, who must attend regular medical appointments to maintain their health and to continue receiving their veterans’ benefits, can burn up their sick leave quickly.
"As the final rule is published and the law soon takes effect, I am humbled and immensely proud this originated from Sue Thatch, an FMA member from Chapter 21, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point [N.C.], who saw a need and pursued a remedy," Johnson said. "Watching this idea become a bill and then signed into law shows what is possible when Congress and the administration come together for the common good."
Current federal employees who are disabled veterans are not eligible for the new type of leave. Those workers qualify for other types of leave and flexibilities to receive treatment for service-connected disabilities, including leave without pay, annual leave, sick leave, advanced sick leave, alternative work schedules and telework.
Clarification: As explained in the story, "wounded warrior" leave is a separate leave category from sick leave. But the amount of "wounded warrior" leave (104 hours) is equivalent to a year's worth of sick leave.