OPM Issues New Rules for Feds on Religious Holidays

Pakistani people leave after offering Eid al-Fitr prayers to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Karachi last year. Pakistani people leave after offering Eid al-Fitr prayers to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Karachi last year. Fareed Khan / AP

The Office of Personnel Management published new rules Monday governing how federal employees can earn paid time off for religious observances that do not coincide with a federal holiday.

In final regulations posted in the Federal Register, OPM stated that beginning on May 29, federal workers will be able to take paid days off for religious holidays, provided they work overtime in the weeks before and after the observance at their normal rate of pay.

In a memo to agency heads, acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert said that employees may bank time for a religious observance by working extra hours within the 13 pay periods before or after the holiday—effectively a one-year window. But there is no time limit on when already accrued hours of time off can be used. “If the earned hours are not used as planned, they remain to the employee’s credit until used or the employee’s separation or transfer,” she wrote. 

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In order to qualify for compensatory time off, an employee must request it from his or her manager in writing, and specify the “name and/or description” of the religious observance, the dates in question, as well as when he or she plans to work overtime to make up for the time missed.

Agencies cannot deny an employee’s request to use this program, unless it “interferes with the efficient accomplishment of an agency’s mission.” And they cannot question the validity of the request.

“Agency officials are not charged with determining whether an employee’s belief is the correct interpretation of a religious creed,” Weichert wrote. “It is sufficient that the employee’s sincerely held personal religious beliefs cause the employee to feel an obligation that he or she should be absent from work for a religious purpose.”

If an employee transfers to another agency or leaves the civil service before using already accrued compensatory time off, the agency must pay the employee for that work at their normal salary—not premium pay. And if an employee leaves with a “negative balance,” that would mark a debt to be taken out of their remaining annual leave or other awards owed upon their departure from the agency.

OPM first proposed the regulations in 2013, and initially suggested employees could have 26 pay periods before and after an observance to work overtime, effectively providing a two-year window for employees to make up for an absence. But an agency objected, and pushed for a much shorter time frame to make up for missed work.

“The agency was concerned that a 26 pay period limit is unreasonably long, and does not balance an agency’s responsibility to carry out its mission with an employee’s right to make up the time in 26 pay periods,” OPM said. 

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