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OPM Seeks to Curb Use of 'Often' Abused Paid Administrative Leave

Agency heads must now adhere to uniform reporting standards on the practice.

Federal agencies will soon begin uniformly reporting data on employees they place on paid administrative leave in an attempt to bring more transparency to a practice that lawmakers and auditors have said is unchecked at best, and out-of-control government waste at worst.

Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta sent a memorandum to agency heads last week to inform them OPM will begin implementing a recommendation from the Government Accountability Office to collect information from payroll providers in the near future. Archuleta has contacted chief human capital officers at every agency to “initiate the collaboration process” and will form a working group to make changes to the payroll data standards.

The new policy comes after GAO found in October federal agencies spent $3.1 billion from fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2013 on salaries for employees on administrative leave, though there were no governmentwide standards to ensure accurate data. Archuleta noted administrative leave is not expressly permitted in Title Five -- the part of the U.S. Code that governs the civil service -- though agencies still use it often, primarily while investigating employees’ alleged misconduct.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized the practice, saying it amounts to a paid vacation for bad apples while the bureaucracy attempts to cut through the red tape. GAO found 57,000 federal employees earned at least one month’s salary while not working in the three-year period studied, while 263 received at least one full year’s salary to stay home.

As part of her memo, Archuleta sent a fact sheet to agency heads to clarify when administrative leave is appropriate.

“Administrative leave is not an entitlement, and agencies are not required to grant it,” OPM wrote in the new guidance.

OPM noted examples such as emergency dismissals, civilians returning from active military duty, voting and the death of a president as situations in which allowing administrative leave is appropriate governmentwide. For agency-specific uses of administrative leave, OPM advised the absences should be directly related to the agency’s mission, sponsored by the agency head, “clearly” enhance the development or skills of the employee, or be as brief as possible and “in the interest of the agency.”

Administrative leave should never be used “for an extender or indefinite” period of time, or on a recurring basis. It can be used for the Employee Assistance Program, blood donation or agency-approved volunteering.

“OPM does not regulate the use of administrative leave,” the human resources agency said. “The authority rests with each agency head.”

Still, OPM advised that paid, non-duty status is an “immediate, temporary solution to the problem of any employee who should be kept away from the worksite.” For example, if the employee is under investigation and poses a threat to his own safety or the safety of others, or that of the agency mission or government property, the employee can be placed on administrative leave. When the situation will take a long time to resolve, however, the practice is “generally inappropriate,” OPM said, and the employing agency should seek an alternative solution such as a new assignment in which the employee no longer poses a threat.

OPM also said in “rare circumstances,” agencies can institute administrative leave after they have already proposed an adverse action “for the time necessary to effect” that action. The guidance “strongly recommends” agencies consider other options, however, such as leave without pay, indefinite suspensions or firing the employee without notice if there is “reasonable cause to believe the employee has committed a crime” for which he or she could go to prison.

OPM told agency heads to review their administrative leave policies, as they are likely overusing it.

“While administrative leave may be appropriate under various circumstances, supervisors often place employees on administrative leave rather than utilizing other options that may be more appropriate,” OPM said. 

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