Absenteeism Report Irks Federal Employees
Senator Says Too Many Go AWOL

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has been checking up on the attendance records of federal employees. And he doesn't like what he's found.

Civil servants have been away from their jobs without permission much too often in recent years, Coburn says in a new report. Records from 17 federal agencies and the U.S. Postal Service show that workers were absent without leave for 19.6 million hours between 2001 and 2007, the study found.

That's the equivalent of 2.5 million missed days of work, or 316 employees skipping out for entire 30-year careers, says Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management.

"During my time in Congress, I have met many wonderful people who work for the federal government out of a sense of service to their country," Coburn wrote in a cover letter for the report, released Aug. 21. "Unfortunately, there is also a sizeable and growing number of federal employees who undermine the agencies they serve by failing to show up to work. . . . I believe the American taxpayer deserves better."

But federal employees and their advocates, and a few agency officials, called the report misleading. They said it does not put the numbers in context, omits other figures and unfairly disparages the professionalism of the federal workforce, which averaged about 2.5 million people, including postal employees, during the period Coburn studied.

Looked at another way, for example, Coburn's numbers show that the average federal employee is absent from work without permission for about 67 minutes a year.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents more than 150,000 federal workers, said in an e-mail: "The report is little more than a collection of numbers surrounded by innuendoes and loose extrapolations. The problem with doing this kind of misrepresentation is that it tells federal employees their work is not valued and their contributions are not recognized -- making it much harder for agencies to recruit and retain the high-quality employees they need."

In a telephone interview, Coburn said he is bashing not the rank-and-file but rather bosses who do not address the issue. "This isn't about the federal workforce, this is about the management of the federal workforce," he said. "That's what needs to be better."

In the Senate, Coburn is known as "Dr. No," a lawmaker who considers the government too big and wasteful and routinely votes against creating or expanding programs. He asked agencies for data on workers who were AWOL, or absent without leave, between 2001 and 2007. That meant they were late or absent altogether, but not because of vacation, illness, jury duty or other approved leave.

As the report notes, not all agencies define AWOL the same way. Some consider employees AWOL when they are 15 minutes late. Others do so only for lengthier absences. Some agencies provided incomplete data -- Transportation Security Administration figures were only for 2007, for instance. Employees are not supposed to be paid for time they are AWOL.

In Coburn's calculus, the departments of Veterans Affairs and the Treasury were the most absentee-plagued, with employees missing for 8 million and 4 million hours, respectively. Absenteeism matters, he wrote, because less work gets done and agencies may hire more people to compensate, driving up payroll costs.

"It is unreasonable and unfair to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for inefficiencies that federal agencies fail to address," Coburn wrote.

But the full story behind the AWOL numbers is more complicated, according to critics and agency officials.

At VA, the department's 273,000 employees worked about 2.5 billion hours over the period, said spokeswoman Lisette Mondello. The 8 million AWOL hours is a tiny amount in comparison, amounting to one-third of 1 percent of all hours worked, she said. Mondello said the department tracks AWOL hours "meticulously" to let employees know that lateness and unapproved absenteeism won't be tolerated.

The report "gives the impression that employees at the VA are not there and it's the furthest from the truth," she said. "We take accountability very, very seriously."

At Treasury, about 96 percent of the AWOL hours were logged by Internal Revenue Service employees, many of whom are part-time or seasonal workers who have accrued little or no sick leave or vacation time, said spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin.

"This is an important issue, and we at Treasury continue to look for ways to ensure proper identification of employee absences," McLaughlin said. "We work to train employees and management to address these issues."

J. David Cox, the national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said some federal workers taking approved leave -- vacation, family and medical leave or leave without pay, for example -- may be marked down temporarily as AWOL until paperwork is completed.

"It's a classic example of how you can pull out numbers if you are trying to prove some point," Cox said.

Andrea Brooks, an AFGE national vice president, said the study would have been more meaningful if it showed disciplinary moves made by agencies. "No agency is going to let employees rack up hundreds of hours of leave without permission without taking some action," she said.

Even public servants with the best of intentions are not always where they are supposed to be. Coburn, for instance, has missed 58 of 1283 votes, or 4.5 percent, during his nearly four years in the Senate, according to congressional records. In six years in the House, he missed 232 of 3741 votes, or 6.2 percent.

Coburn said he missed 40 Senate votes when he was being treated for cancer last year. As for the missed House votes, he said: "It's probably because of the same reasons I miss votes on Monday nights -- because flights get in late."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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