OPM: If You Need to Travel for Medical Care, You Can Use Sick Leave
The federal government’s HR agency confirmed that federal employees may use sick leave to travel to obtain reproductive health services, although the measure falls short of employee groups’ request for paid administrative leave after abortion ruling.
The Office of Personnel Management on Monday said that federal employees can make use of existing paid sick leave policies in order to travel across state lines for medical care. Though OPM did not specifically state it, this could include travel to get an abortion or other reproductive health services following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers live in states where pre-Roe abortion bans remain on the books, that have passed so-called “trigger laws” that were designed to automatically go into effect when the 49-year-old precedent was overturned, or in states where officials have vowed to move swiftly to pass new bans following the court’s action.
Federal employees were already in an unusual situation within the American workforce. Unlike most employer-sponsored health insurance plans, the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program does not cover abortion services, due to the Hyde Amendment, a long-running provision of annual appropriations bills barring federal funds from being used for abortion.
On Monday, OPM published an FAQ stressing that travel associated with obtaining “medical care” must be authorized in response to a sick leave request to obtain medical treatment. Although the document does not mention abortion, reproductive health services or Roe v. Wade, the White House touted the document as an example of how federal agencies are affirming their “commitment to reproductive health care.”
“An agency must grant sick leave to an employee for the employee to receive medical examination or treatment,” the document states. “Accessing that medical examination or treatment typically involves travel, and that travel can be covered by sick leave to the extent that the travel time occurs during the employee’s tour of duty established for leave-charging purposes. While such travel will generally be short distances—for example, to and from a local doctor’s office or hospital—an employee may find it necessary to travel longer distances, including out of state, to obtain medical care.”
Additionally, agencies must authorize sick leave in instances where a federal employee accompanies a family member to receive medical treatment, including travel time. And agencies may grant advanced sick leave in cases where an employee has not accrued enough leave to meet their or their family member’s needs.
Traveling long distances to obtain medical treatment, such as traveling across state lines to reach a jurisdiction where abortions and other reproductive health services remain legal, could impose additional steps in the leave authorization process, however.
“For an absence in excess of three workdays (or a lesser period when determined necessary by the agency), an agency may require the employee to provide a medical certificate or other administratively acceptable evidence,” OPM wrote. “A medical certificate simply means a written statement signed by a physician or other practitioner certifying that the employee received an examination or treatment; it need not contain details regarding the medical examination or treatment.”
Federal employees who do not have sufficient sick leave to cover the time it takes to travel and receive treatment may also use other forms of leave, including an agency’s voluntary leave transfer program or voluntary leave bank program, provided they or a family member are experiencing a “medical emergency.” And they must exhaust all of their relevant paid leave and spend at least 24 hours in leave without pay status in order to qualify for these leave programs.
But OPM’s memo falls short of the proposal advocated by a growing number of federal employee groups, including the American Federation of Government Employees. Those groups have urged the Biden administration to authorize paid administrative leave, separate from sick leave, for federal workers in states that have severe abortion restrictions or outright bans so that those employees can more easily travel across state lines to receive care.
Administration officials have reportedly suggested such a policy still may be forthcoming, pending an opinion from the Justice Department that it would not violate the Hyde Amendment.