New sick leave rules for federal workers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 7:53 PM

Federal workers are preparing for a two-year freeze in pay, but they can also expect some positive changes to their sick leave policy in the new year.

Starting Jan. 3, federal workers may swap up to 26 weeks of sick leave for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for family members sick with serious communicable diseases, including the flu. They may also use the benefit to care for an ill or injured family member serving in the military.

In both cases, workers could receive up to 30 days of advanced sick leave if necessary, the Office of Personnel Management announced Friday.

Workers might choose to use unpaid FMLA leave because they can afford to take the time off without pay. Or they might want to use unpaid leave because they have a relatively low sick leave balance and are concerned about preserving enough leave time for future personal need. For example, pregnant women who are trying to accrue paid leave time could take advantage of the unpaid leave option to care for a severely ill or injured relative.

OPM will authorize this special type of sick leave only if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines that exposure to certain communicable diseases could affect the health of others.

For example, last year's H1N1 flu outbreak would not have qualified under the new policy because the CDC advised that employees could continue working even if a member of their household contracted the disease, OPM said.

"The use of sick leave for exposure to a communicable disease should be used only in very limited circumstances, and agencies should not grant sick leave for this purpose until they receive guidance from the appropriate officials," OPM said in its announcement, published Friday in the Federal Register.

As defined by OPM, family members are spouses, children, foster children, stepchildren, stepparents, grandparents and grandchildren, and same-sex or heterosexual domestic partners. The definitions were expanded to include same-sex relationships in June as part of President Obama's pledge to expand worker benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian federal workers.

Obama last week ordered a two-year freeze on most federal civilian salaries, and he said during his unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Friday that the freeze would not extend to members of the military.

Congress must approve the 2011 pay freeze before it can take effect, but no decision has been made on when or how the vote will occur, according to aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Researcher Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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