Absenteeism Report Irks Federal Employees

Senator Says Too Many Go AWOL

Sen. Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn (Chris Kleponis - Bloomberg News)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008; Page A13

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.

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