A TSA employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport on Jan. 23.

A TSA employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport on Jan. 23. Julio Cortez/AP

Reversing Course, Trump Admin Allows Feds Working Through Shutdown to Take Leave Without Penalty

New guidance comes just days after OPM warned of “consequences” for “AWOL” employees.

The Trump administration is providing significantly greater flexibility to federal employees working without pay during the shutdown, appearing to walk back guidance it issued last week that sought to crack down on employees calling out of work while they are not receiving paychecks.

The new guidance, issued Wednesday by the Office of Personnel Management, allows “excepted” employees for the first time since the shutdown began more than 30 days ago to “request time off based on their personal circumstances.” Those workers have two avenues for calling out: they can either request leave, which they will only be paid for once government reopens, or they can take “approved periods of absence” without requesting leave. OPM noted that employees choosing the latter option will be placed in furlough status and they, too, will receive retroactive pay. Those employees would also enjoy the benefit of not having their leave balances docked once their agencies reopen.

OPM encouraged agencies to consider leave requests as they would during any normal, non-shutdown period.

"During this difficult time, it is prudent, to the extent possible and appropriate, for agencies to provide additional flexibility to the Federal civil servants who are excepted from the furlough to perform necessary functions for the American people," OPM Acting Director Margaret Weichert wrote in the new guidance.

Weichert also “strongly encourage[d]” agencies to allow excepted employees to work remotely more often and permit “flexible start and stop times.” She noted that excepted feds working without pay during the shutdown have often lost their subsidies for child care and transit benefits.

OPM “is aware of the difficulties facing many employees during the current lapse in appropriations,” Weichert said. “While all furloughed employees are impacted, employees who have been designated as excepted from the furlough . . . have the additional expense of coming to work, but are having their compensation delayed.”

The guidance marked a sudden reversal from OPM and the Trump administration, which just days ago directed agencies to label any employee who did not show up to work to be labeled as “absent without leave.” OPM instructed agencies to “apply appropriate consequences” when placing employees in AWOL status after they called out.

Weichert struck a dramatically different tone in her Wednesday memo.

“We want to thank the dedicated men and women who are serving the American people during the partial lapse in appropriations,” Weichert wrote in the memo to all agency heads. “We pledge to continue to perform funded and critical non-funded services and look forward to the day when we can resume the full complement of work we perform on behalf of the citizens of the United States.”

The previous guidance on AWOL status came as call outs at the Transportation Security Administration reached 10 percent over the weekend. Call outs have spread to other agencies, as well, such as the Bureau of Prisons. The situation became so dire that the agency’s director called the workforce’s union chief, Eric Young, to warn him that prison wardens were going to take additional steps to force employees to come to work. The OPM memo caused an uproar among bureau employees, who Young said “would work around the clock” if they could afford to make their commutes and care for their children.