The government is taking action to curb the long-maligned practice of putting federal employees on paid leave for months — and even years — while they wait to be punished for misbehavior or cleared and allowed to return to the office.

In a memo last week, Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta told agency heads that the extensive use of administrative leave throughout government should be just the opposite:  a “temporary solution,” only for problem employees who pose a danger to themselves or their colleagues.

In other words, if someone poses a threat to his own safety or the safety of others, send him home. If the situation could take a long time to resolve, like most misconduct cases, keep them on the job.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta. (Courtesy of OPM.)

“While administrative leave may be appropriate under various circumstances, supervisors often place employees on administrative leave rather than utilizing other options that may be more appropriate,” such as a reassignment or indefinite suspension, Archuleta wrote.

“Administrative leave is not an entitlement, and agencies are not required to grant it.”

The new policy comes after The Washington Post reported that during a three-year period that ended last fall, more than 57,000 federal employees were sent home for a month or longer, some for longer stretches that hit a year or more. The tab for these workers reached more than $700 million in salary alone, according to data from the Government Accountability Office.

[RELATED: Thousands of federal workers on extended paid leave]

Most agencies have only spotty data on how many employees they have on paid leave and for how long, auditors found. Archuleta has told agencies to begin reporting the information for more transparency.

The government has had rules on the books for years to sharply limit paid leave in an effort to curb waste while managers deal quickly with employees accused of misconduct. The comptroller general has repeatedly ruled that employees should not be sidelined for long periods. But the GAO, in a report last fall, found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years.

While the employees stayed home, they not only collected paychecks but also built their pensions, vacation and sick days and moved up the federal pay scale.

GAO auditors found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of ­government rules and laws, whistleblowing, doubts about trust­worthiness, and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some employees remain on paid leave while they challenge demotions and other punishments.

It was the first time the government calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave, and auditors acknowledged that because the data was incomplete, the use of paid leave is probably a lot bigger. The government spent a total of about $3 billion in salaries for employees on paid leave during the period they audited, but the spending included emergency dismissals, civilians returning from active military duty, giving blood, voting and funerals, all of which are short-term, legitimate excuses for being off the job.

[Read OPM’s memo on paid leave here] 

Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized the practice of drawn-out leave, saying it amounts to a paid vacation for bad employees. Two leading Republicans in Congress, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) last fall asked 17 large federal agencies to account for hundreds of employees they have kept on paid leave for a year or more.

“We’re still analyzing the responses but what we’re seeing so far causes concern,” Grassley said in a statement Wednesday.  “The responding agencies spent tens of millions of dollars in one year alone to put employees on administrative leave for one month or more, often when administrative leave wasn’t the most appropriate action to take. Agencies need to do a better job of protecting the taxpayers from abusively long or inappropriate paid leave.”

Read more about how the government uses paid leave :

[Civil servants accused of rule-breaking can get stuck in an ill-defined limbo] 

[GOP lawmakers want answers on long paid leave for federal workers]

[How the EPA used administrative leave]

[An inspector general’s long stretch on administrative leave is unfair to taxpayers]