According to a newly released Government Accountability Office report, one department stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to taking paid time off, racking up millions of days — and dollars — in paid administrative leave between fiscal years 2011 and 2013: the Department of Defense.
According to the report, during that time over 9,000 DoD employees took “higher than average” amounts of paid administrative leave, with breaks ranging from one month to two-and-a-half years. Altogether, these employees got 409,420 paid days off.
“The diversity of missions and individual circumstances among the diverse organizations and individuals comprising the federal sector organization and its employment will result in a variety of valid reasons for granting administrative leave,” wrote a DoD adviser in response.
The report found that 26,000 government-wide employees had taken unusually high amounts of paid administrative leave (defined as “paid administrative leave in excess of three standard deviations from the agency average,”) and asked some of them why. “Of the 312 employees selected for further review,” it explains, “we found, through analysis of agency responses, that the most common reasons for charging higher-than-average amounts of paid administrative leave included personnel matters (such as investigations into alleged misconduct or criminal actions), physical fitness-related activities, and periods of rest and recuperation for employees working in overseas locations.”
The report also noted that, while “physical-fitness related activities” was one of the most frequently-cited reasons for granting paid administrative leave among this group, “in some instances for these reasons, the agencies noted that this was a timekeeping error and that paid administrative leave should not have been charged for this reason.”
Other reasons cited included observance of “local holidays” like Mardi Gras and those observed exclusively overseas, blood donation, attendance at and/or participation in funerals, and “employee organization (union) activities such as negotiations, grievance and appeals, ongoing labor and management committees, or training for union representatives.”
In second place for unusually high amounts of paid administrative leave is the Department of Veterans Affairs, with over 6,000 employees granted leave ranging from one month to three years, coming to a total of 330,055 days, followed by the Department of Agriculture, with over 2,000 employees racking up 120,212 days.
The GAO was asked to perform the study by Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Coburn and Rep. Darrell Issa.
The report noted that different agencies determined what qualifies for administrative leave differently. For example, while the Department of the Interior considers jury duty, or serving as a court witness, to qualify for paid administrative leave, in several other agencies such time falls under different leave policies.
More confusing are the discrepancies between different levels and subcomponents of the same department. “For example,” the report explains, “according to Air Force policy, legal holidays are categorized as paid administrative leave. However, in DOD-wide policy, as well as other DOD subcomponents reviewed, legal holidays are not categorized under paid administrative leave.”
The GAO also found that what it calls “a lack of detailed guidance related to recording and reporting administrative leave” makes even determining who’s taking how much leave and why “challenging.”
“At the Department of Veterans Affairs for instance, we found that official time for engaging in union activities were recorded as paid administrative leave because the agency’s time and attendance system does not have a job code to capture official time separately,” the office explained.
Across the three fiscal years, the government paid out over $3 billion in salary for paid administrative leave. Three percent of federal employees (about 57,000 people) took more an a month of such leave during this period.
The GAO recommended that the Office of Personnel Management “develop guidance for agencies on which activities to enter, or not enter, as paid administrative leave in agency time and attendance systems.” The OPM “partially agreed” with this recommendation, but objected that “its role does not include directing guidance to agencies on how to collect time and attendance data.” The GAO disagreed, reiterating that their recommendation is not “inconsistent with OPM’s role.”
“GAO continues to believe the recommendations are valid.”