Pay and Benefits Watch: Leave and let leave

Time is ticking down on the comment period for a proposed rule that would allow federal employees to use up to 12 weeks of accrued sick leave to care for family members. Federal employees can submit comments on the proposed rule to the Office of Personnel Management by March 27.

The proposed change would replace the current 13-day limit on the number of sick days employees can take to care for family members.

After reported the proposed change two weeks ago, several readers wrote in to say they wished the new policy had taken effect last fall. One reader had to take 57 hours of annual leave to care for her sick father after she had used up the allotted 13 days. Another took unpaid leave that ended up costing him $4,500 in lost wages.

When President Clinton announced the planned change in May 1999, Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance said it would take four to six months to get the new policy in place. It will instead take at least 10 months, though OPM shortened the normal comment period for proposed rules from 60 days to 45 days "to accommodate the pressing need for this benefit," the agency said in its Feb. 9 Federal Register announcement of the proposed rule.

In 1995 and 1996, about 1 percent of federal employees used the full 13 days available to them for family care. To encourage employees to maintain some sick leave in case they themselves get sick, employees cannot use more than five days of sick leave for family care unless they keep a balance of 10 sick days for themselves.

The longer an employee works for Uncle Sam, the less the minimum balance rule matters, since there's no limit on sick leave accrual. John Raye, a manager at the Defense Logistics Agency in Columbus, Ohio, said one of his employees recently retired with 800 hours of sick leave.

Some federal employees, especially those in the Federal Employees Retirement System, think they should be allowed to donate sick leave to fellow workers. Under the Civil Service Retirement System, sick leave is used in the computation of an employee's pension. But FERS employees' accrued sick leave simply goes away when they retire.

Employees can already donate their annual leave (vacation time) to other workers through agency leave banks, to which any employee can apply for leave, or through direct leave transfers from one employee to another. There are limits on the accrual of annual leave, so some employees donate their annual leave rather than waste it.

"It's too bad that federal employees under the FERS retirement system that want to donate their sick leave cannot, even when they retire," Raye said.

Other organizations allow sick leave to be donated. South Dakota State University, for example, allows employees who have accumulated at least 120 hours of sick leave to donate some of it to colleagues. At the University of Tennessee, an employee who has more than 160 hours of sick leave can donate a minimum of 80 hours.

But it would take a change in law to allow employees to donate their sick leave to each other, according to OPM.

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