More Disabled Vets Could Receive New Leave Benefit

OPM’s interpretation of 2015 law could mean some future hires with prior federal service also are eligible for medical treatment leave.

Disabled veterans who are former federal employees and return to a civilian job in government could be eligible for a new type of leave to attend medical appointments.

The 2015 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act gives 104 hours of sick leave up front 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.

But according to the Office of Personnel Management, the law also could apply to eligible disabled vets who once worked in the federal government, left, and were rehired to a civil service job on or after Nov. 5, when the law takes effect. 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, according to a proposed rule OPM published in the Federal Register on Monday.

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.

OPM said that the law did not require an interpretation of “first day of employment” to mean an individual’s first-ever appointment with the federal government.  

“Some individuals could have small amounts of past federal service before military service, and we do not believe that Congress would have intended to automatically disqualify them from receiving disabled veteran leave benefits,” the proposed rule said. “Thus, the proposed regulations would cover certain reappointments as triggering the first day of employment, which in turn triggers the 12-month eligibility period to use disabled veteran leave. At the same time, given that Congress intended the 104-hour leave benefit for those with an initial balance of zero sick leave hours, any sick leave restored to an employee's credit upon reappointment will be taken into account in determining the amount of disabled veteran leave that should be credited.”

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. “This approach is consistent with OPM's administration of annual and sick leave accrual for employees with different types of work schedules and ensures equitable treatment of employees,” the rule stated.

The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act directs agencies have 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.

Current federal employees who are disabled veterans also 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. 

Those seeking to comment on the proposed rule have until July 6.