This post has been updated with a response from Homeland Security officials
A year after auditors documented tens of thousands of federal workers on paid leave for at least a month and longer stretches that exceed a year, close to 100 Department of Homeland Security employees still are being paid not to work for more than a year.
The large number persists even after the Obama administration urged agencies in June to curtail their reliance on what is known as administrative leave, the government’s go-to strategy for dealing with employees facing allegations of misconduct.
Now Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who provided the numbers he received from DHS, is demanding answers from the agency. In a letter to Secretary Jeh Johnson Wednesday, he called Homeland Security’s previous explanation for extended leave cases “too broad and vague to assess whether other actions might have been more appropriate.”
Grassley said the agency failed to explain how it was meeting federal guidelines to reserve paid leave for rare circumstances when an employee poses a physical threat in the workplace, or how sidelining employees for so long is consistent with numerous rulings by the comptroller general that federal workers should not be sidelined for long periods for any reason.
“DHS also failed to explain why such extended amounts of time were needed to conduct investigations into security issues, misconduct, or fitness for duty,” Grassley wrote.
DHS was one large agency cited by the Government Accountability Office in October 2014 in the first report on administrative leave. The audit, first made public by The Washington Post, 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 of them were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years.
The tab for these workers exceeded $775 million in salary alone, auditors found. They acknowledged that their report almost certainly understates the extent and cost of administrative leave because the figures they examined accounted for only about three-fifths of the federal workforce.
Homeland Security spokesman S.Y. Lee said in a statement that the agency “will respond directly” to Grassley.
Lee said the agency has updated its guidance to managers on the use of administrative leave “to further improve oversight” for cases that can take a long time to resolve.
“These reviews consider whether to continue the administrative leave or to assign the employee to a more appropriate status in light of the specific circumstances of that case,” Lee said. Managers are now required to notify the agency’s personnel office when an employee has been on paid leave for six months or longer.
Grassley asked DHS and other agencies the auditors cited for a significant use of administrative leave to explain why. The senator’s staff calculated that DHS, the government’s third-largest agency, spent almost $1.8 million last year to keep 88 employees on paid leave. Four were on administrative leave for some three years or more, and another 17 employees for two years or more. Grassley said he wants more answers from the agency.
Of the 88, 53 faced misconduct charges, 13 had issues with security clearances and the agency had questions about the fitness for duty of another 22, according to data DHS provided to the senator.
The employees on leave for at least a year were across the department’s components, suggesting “systemic misuse of paid administrative leave,” Grassley said.
In an interview, he called administrative leave “a crutch not to make a decision on some personnel problems.”
“Can you imagine that we have to write this letter now, after GAO said how bad this problem is?” he asked. “Obviously in DHS nothing has changed. To me and to the taxpayers it’s a lot of money.”
Grassley said he is working with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on a bill that would crack down on abuses of paid leave, allowing federal agencies to send an employee home only in rare circumstances, when they physically endanger themselves or someone else.
Auditors found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of government rules and laws, whistle blowing, doubts about trustworthiness and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some employees remain on paid leave while they challenge demotions and other punishments.
While employees stay home, they not only collect paychecks but also build their pensions, vacation and sick days and move up the federal pay scale.