Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the measure failed to address what would happen after the 14 days of administrative leave expired.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the measure failed to address what would happen after the 14 days of administrative leave expired. Susan Walsh/AP

House Panel Delays Admin Leave Reform Amid Democratic Concerns

Democrats agree forced paid leave is problematic, but want to ensure due process for feds.

A House committee on Tuesday debated overhauling the process of placing malfeasant federal employees on paid leave while their conduct is reviewed, but the panel decided against voting on a reform bill to give more time to address Democratic concerns. 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced the Administrative Leave Reform Act on Monday, just one day before it was scheduled for a markup. Chaffetz said his measure was a “common-sense” change to address the “abuse” of forced paid leave, but his Democratic counterparts called the bill flawed and said it should receive a full legislative hearing before committee members vote on it.

The legislation would cap the amount of time an agency could place an employee on administrative leave for misconduct or performance at 14 days each year. There are currently no restrictions on the use of administrative leave, and the oversight committee has held several hearings and voiced complaints about employees being provided with months or even years of paid time off while their alleged misbehavior was investigated.

“Too often we hear about these horrific stories,” Chaffetz said. He added agencies “find it easier to prolong an investigation” than to deal with the fallout of its findings.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, voiced his opposition to the bill, saying it was a workaround to skirt federal employees’ due process rights. The measure, he said, failed to address what would happen after the 14 days of administrative leave expired.

“Does the employee go back to work?” he asked. “Is the employee placed on leave without pay?”

Chaffetz’s bill, Cummings said, “addresses a legitimate problem, but this is not the right solution.” Instead, the long-time federal employee advocate threw his support behind an alternative proposal from Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that would automatically return an employee on administrative for 14 days to work. In some cases, the measure would require employees accused of certain actions to telework until their situations were resolved.

After hearing Cummings’ concerns, Chaffetz agreed to withdraw the vote on his bill to “work on a bipartisan resolution” that would pass the committee. Cummings and Lynch thanked the chairman for his acquiescence.

Earlier this year, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidance to curb the use of administrative leave, which OPM said agencies were abusing. OPM issued the memorandum after a Government Accountability Office report found federal agencies spent $3.1 billion from fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2013 on salaries for employees on administrative leave. 

“Administrative leave is not an entitlement, and agencies are not required to grant it,” OPM wrote in the guidance. The practice should not be used for an “extender or indefinite period,” it said, or on a recurring basis. Generally, administrative leave is appropriate for employees under investigation and who pose a threat to their own safety or the safety of others, or that of the agency mission or government property.

On the Senate side, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has sought to shed light on administrative leave abuses for a decade. He recently released a report detailing a sample of 18 agencies that spent a collective $80 million on salaries for employees administrative leave in 2014. Grassley is working with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on a bill to define administrative leave in statute, offer incentives for ulterior punishments for malfeasant employees such as reassignments or indefinite suspensions, limit the length of time an employee can be forced to not work with pay, require oversight of whether an employee actually poses a threat to the workplace, enable employees to appeal the use of the practice, and provide better tracking and recording.

Jill Gerber, a spokeswoman for Grassley, said the bill will be finalized “as soon as possible.”

“It’s good news that both chambers are focused on the issue, which bodes well for success,” Gerber said of Chaffetz’s efforts. "Sen. Grassley is glad that his continued oversight over this issue…[has] contributed to the focus on reform.”