Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., worked with Republicans to iron out differences on the bill.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., worked with Republicans to iron out differences on the bill. Steven Senne/AP

House Panel Backs Capping Admin Leave at 14 Days Each Year

Both chambers of Congress look to rein in practice agencies have abused for years.

A House committee on Tuesday passed a bill to restrict agencies’ use of administrative leave, following a Senate panel that last month approved its own measure to curb agencies giving employees indefinite paid time off.

The Administrative Leave Reform Act would hinder an agency’s ability to place an employee on administrative leave for “reasons relating to misconduct or performance” more than 14 days in one year. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee took a second crack at reforming the administrative leave process after its chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, put forward a bill in January but withdrew it before it received a vote. 

While the initial bill set the 14-day administrative leave cap across the board, an amendment ironed out between Chaffetz and Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and adopted by the committee provided some exceptions. After 14 days, agencies would be required to place employees back on paid duty status. In some cases, Lynch said, it would make more sense for agencies to allow employees to telework or to place them in an alternative facility. If employees still represent a threat to public safety, government property or the agency mission, the bill would allow for up to 30 days of administrative leave at a time. Each additional 30-day period would require an explanation from the agency to be provided to Congress.

The original language of the bill, Lynch and several committee Democrats said, undermined federal employees' constitutional right to due process. The measure would have placed employees under investigation for misconduct for more than 14 days on unpaid leave. That policy would have removed employees’ pay before they were able to defend themselves, possibly punishing those later found to be not guilty.

Currently, agencies use administrative leave at their discretion, usually when they are investigating an employee’s alleged misconduct. But the tool’s loose guidelines and liberal application have led to abuse, with many employees spending months and years at home collecting pay while agencies investigate. The practice also sometimes punishes employees because it keeps in limbo their job and ability to challenge the agency while they await a final decision on their work status.

“It’s not fair for the employee,” Chaffetz said of the current process. “It’s not fair to the government for this to go on in perpetuity.”

The Office of Personnel Management sent agencies a memorandum last summer saying it would begin collecting more information on the practice to put more parameters around its use and increase transparency. It also said agencies were “often” abusing the practice and ignoring the intention behind its original creation. The memo was prompted by a Government Accountability Office report that found agencies spent $3.1 billion between 2011 and 2013 paying employees not to work while on administrative leave.

In February, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the 2016 Administrative Leave Act, which would limit agencies to using the practice five days at a time. It would also create two new leave categories -- investigative leave and notice leave -- provided agencies meet specific criteria and are unable to use other available options. Agencies would have to comply with more stringent reporting requirements as well, including recording administrative leave separately from other forms of excused absences, and explaining to employees why they have been placed on investigative or notice leave.

In its 2015 guidance, OPM said it “strongly recommends” agencies consider other options aside from administrative leave, 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.

On Tuesday, oversight committee members promised to work together as the bill heads to the House floor to address any outstanding due process concerns raised by some skeptics.

“While I’m not certain about Lynch’s amendment, it’s certainly an improvement over 14 days,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., praised the committee for working in a “bipartisan manner."

Ultimately, he said, his colleagues were able to “not only make the bill stronger but obviously protect the rights of all federal workers.”

Kellie Lunney contributed to this report