In a global pandemic, it isn’t right to expect people to take use-or-lose vacation time.
As government employees continue to hunker down, telework and perform essential functions, we’re all earning annual leave that most of us aren’t using. With stay-at-home orders in place in many states and localities across the country, why would we take leave?
For most people, there’s nothing to do but stay home. Staycations just aren’t appealing in the era of COVID-19 quarantining. Memorial Day plans are toast. Summer vacations, canceled. Grandparents—multi-day child care providers for many of us with little ones—can’t take the kids for a few days for parental getaways.
So most federal employees are building up leave balances and planning time off later in the year, fingers crossed that travel restrictions ease. We’re all thinking the same thing. That’s the problem.
The Defense Department already addressed this issue for military members. Earlier this month, the department issued an authorization for service members to accrue and retain an additional leave balance of up to 120 days. With stop-move orders in place, the usual summer leave and turnover activities between assignments—moving, house hunting, enjoying a little time with family—cannot happen as they normally do. Men and women in uniform absolutely deserve this relief from the usual caps on their leave balances.
What about civilians? The pressures of frequent moves may not apply for most of us, but four pay periods of leave (anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, depending on your years of service) have accrued since the coronavirus crisis began for most of the country, and the balances keep ticking upward, closer to the carryover limit of 240 hours (30 days) carryover limit. (Employees serving overseas can retain 45 days of leave; members of the Senior Executive Service, those in senior-level positions, and scientific and professional employees can carry over 90 days.)
Leave balance caps, dictated in federal law, should be updated address the circumstances arising from the global pandemic. That’s exactly what some lawmakers have proposed to do. Congress and the Office of Personnel Management would be wise to offer relief from the current leave carryover caps. It wouldn’t just benefit employees. Supervisors across government would be relieved of picking winners and losers toward the end of the leave year, which falls on Jan. 5, 2021. Use or lose leave should be scheduled by Nov. 21, 2020, according to current OPM guidance.
OPM has used flexibilities in law to adjust leave policies in response to past crises. In 2002, the agency issued guidance allowing restoration of leave for employees whose work was deemed to be associated with the response to the national emergency resulting from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Agency heads may also declare that “exigencies of the public business” allow for leave restoration. However, use of this flexibility implies annual leave cannot be permitted during the emergency situation, making it a poor choice under current circumstances. Agencies can also request an increase to the highest leave accrual cap via OPM established processes. That option helps feds with fewer years of service, but not those already accruing leave at the highest rate, which includes senior executives.
If no relief comes, supervisors should do their best to encourage employees to schedule and take leave, even if travel isn’t an option. That’s a tough sell. Employees could utilize leave in small increments—half days on a recurring basis.
Should employees find themselves on the verge of losing leave, donating it at least ensures someone in need can use the time. OPM’s guidelines on leave donation allow for annual—not sick—leave transfer to employees who meet the criteria for acceptance into the voluntary leave transfer program. Contact your human resources office for more details for specifics on leave donation procedures in your agency or department.
As govvies, we’re all thankful to have our jobs, benefits and leave during this crisis. Initiate tough conversations now to avoid hard choices later, and donate leave if you can’t use it.
Love Rutledge hosts the FedUpward podcast, a show for feds to find tips and strategies to navigate everyday problems. She has 20 years of government service. She’s also a wife and mother of two preschoolers. Opinions expressed are hers and not those of the U.S. government or the Defense Department.