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Furloughs could shortchange employees of leave benefits

When some federal employees receive their next leave and earnings statement—the government’s term for a paycheck—they may find that not only is the earnings number smaller than normal, but also that their leave time has been affected.

Federal employees accrue sick leave and annual (vacation) leave every two-week pay period. Sick leave grows by four hours per pay period. Accrual of annual leave varies by years of service: four hours per pay period for those with fewer than three years; six hours for those with between three and 15; and eight for those with 15 or more.

However, there is a Catch-80: No new time is credited during a pay period in which an employee hits 80 hours in non-pay status during a year, according to Office of Personnel Management guidance.

Some federal workers who have been furloughed since the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1 could see that impact in their next pay; paydates vary according to the payroll provider an agency uses. While the shutdown hasn’t yet lasted 10 days, many workers had to take unpaid furlough days in the spring and summer due to sequestration.

The Defense Department put it this way in guidance to its employees Wednesday: “Most employees already have taken six furlough days (48 hours); when they reach a total of 10 furlough days or 80 hours (on/about 4 October), they will lose the sick and annual leave they would have earned for the pay period.”

The number of sequester furlough days varied widely in other agencies; some imposed none, and even within agencies that imposed them, some employees were exempt. Those employees are not necessarily the same as those currently “excepted” from the shutdown furloughs and still on the job.

While the DoD guidance speaks of furlough days affecting leave crediting, the OPM guidance speaks more broadly of non-pay status. It states that the term means a “period during which an employee is absent from his or her tour of duty established for leave usage purposes and receives no pay for such absence. Furlough is one type of non-pay status.”

The OPM guidance does not address whether the withheld leave time will be credited if furloughed employees later are paid for those days. The House has passed a bill to provide such pay but the Senate has not acted on it.

“Guidance on leave accrual for excepted and furloughed employees will be addressed once the lapse in appropriations has ended based on final enacted authorization and appropriations,” OPM said in an e-mailed response to an inquiry.

The DoD guidance, however, states more definitely that “if Congress restores pay to furloughed employees, any lost leave will also be restored.”

Both the OPM and DoD guidance add that if employees hit a second 80 hours in a leave year—those vary slightly from calendar years—no new leave will be credited for the pay period in which that happens, either. The OPM document also describes special policies for part-time employees.

About 800,000 federal employees initially were furloughed. Some have been called back, many of them at the Defense Department, which recalled the large majority of its 400,000 furloughed employees on Oct. 6 under the Pay Our Military Act, which also broadened the standards for which DoD employees can be kept on the job in support of the military.

That law further authorized continuing to pay “excepted” DoD employees even though employees of other agencies who remain on the job are not going to be paid until after the shutdown ends.

The DoD guidance says that its employees who have remained on the job all along “will receive their regular pay and allowances” in their next pay. Those who were furloughed starting Oct. 1 will receive only a partial pay covering Oct. 1-5, whether or not they were called back starting Oct. 6. Those who were called back “will receive their regular pay and allowances for subsequent pay periods.”