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OPM Implements Paid COVID Leave for Feds, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

The Office of Personnel Management last week published guidance implementing a provision of the latest COVID-19 relief bill that provides federal employees with up to 15 weeks of additional emergency paid sick leave in connection with the pandemic.

Congress included the program, which authorizes paid leave—up to $1,400 per week—for federal workers if they are suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus, if they are caring for a family member with COVID-19, if they are getting vaccinated or experiencing symptoms related to the vaccine, or if they are caring for a child whose school or child care center is closed or engaging in virtual learning due to the pandemic, as part of a $1.9 trillion relief package in March.

According to OPM guidance, the law sets up a $570 million fund that is available for leave taken between March 11 and Sept. 30 or whenever the leave fund dries up, whichever occurs first. Once the money is depleted, employees would have to take one of their other forms of paid leave or leave without pay.

Feds who have symptoms, whose family members have symptoms or who are responding to generic suggestions for people in their age group or with certain pre-existing conditions can qualify for the leave by “self-certifying” that they fall under one of those categories. Parents of children who are home due to closed or virtual schooling also qualify, provided they certify that caring for the child prevents them from working.

Agencies will not have discretion to deny leave to any employee who qualifies for the program, because OPM said it is interpreting the program as a legal entitlement. OPM will provide regular updates on how much money is left in the leave pool, as agencies will submit reimbursement requests on a biweekly basis.

Employees who took some form of personal leave between March 11 and the formal launch of the emergency leave program will be able to submit leave requests retroactively, and agencies will convert those transactions to fall under the program. Employees will generally not be required to provide documentation such as a doctor’s note, but instead offer more general information, like naming the doctor whose orders they are following or the school district that is closed.

Better Pay for TSA Screeners on the Horizon?

On Capitol Hill, House lawmakers are hopeful that they can make progress on efforts to grant airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration better pay and the civil service protections afforded to most other federal employees this year.

At a hearing Tuesday, House Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to come to the table and support the Rights for the Transportation Security Administration Workforce Act (H.R. 903), citing TSA’s continued physical presence at airports throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and bipartisan agreement that the agency suffers from chronic low pay and morale and high employee turnover.

The bill would bring TSA screeners, who since the agency’s inception have been part of a siloed personnel system and have had abridged collective bargaining rights, under Title 5 of the U.S. Code. That would grant those employees access to the General Schedule pay scale, full federal sector collective bargaining rights, as well as additional workforce protections like the ability to appeal adverse personnel actions to the Merit Systems Protections Board and whistleblower protections.

Republicans at the hearing agreed that changes need to be made to honor TSA employees’ sacrifices and improve retention and morale, but were hesitant to sign onto bringing them onto the General Schedule, citing good government groups who have described the system as antiquated and ill-fitting for a 21st century workforce. Advocates argue that the solution to that issue is to update the pay scale, not deny workforce protections to frontline federal employees.