The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government paid $80 million last year for feds to stay home, new analysis reveals

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The government’s largest agencies paid out more than $80 million last year for thousands of employees to sit home for a month and longer while they faced allegations of misconduct, a system a senior lawmaker denounced as “ripe for abuse.”

“Its costs are high, and its benefits dubious,” a report released this week by  the staff of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said, referring to what is known as administrative leave.

“Agencies are able to place an employee on administrative leave simply to avoid addressing an uncomfortable—or potentially even unjustifiable—personnel action,” the report concludes. “Maintaining this status quo serves neither the taxpayer nor the employee.”

[Thousands of federal workers on extended paid leave]

Grassley has worked for more than a year to highlight the practice of extended paid leave, whose widespread use was disclosed for the first time by the Government Accountability Office in October 2014. The GAO 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, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $700 million.

[Almost 100 Homeland Security employees paid to stay home for more than a year]

Some high-profile federal employees have languished on paid leave. There was Paul Brachfeld, the former inspector general for the National Archives and Records Administration, who was banned from coming to work for almost two years, but paid his senior executive salary, during an investigation of alleged misconduct (he eventually retired).

There was Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official at the center of a controversy of the agency’s treatment of groups seeking tax-exempt status, who was on paid leave for four months after she refused to resign (she also retired).

And dozens of whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs who reported covered-up patient wait times were sent home after facing retaliation,  cases VA officials are still trying to resolve through negotiated settlements.

In June, the Obama administration urged agencies in June to curtail their reliance on administrative leave. But Grassley and his Senate colleagues say the system needs stronger, legislative fixes. Grassley and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) plan to introduce a bill in the coming weeks 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.

The bill also would ensure that paid leave is tracked and recorded by agencies and prevent its use as a means of retaliation against whistleblowers, aides said.

[More than 2,500 VA employees were on paid leave last year. VA hasn’t tracked why]

Paid leave is supposed to be used only in rare circumstances when an employee poses a physical threat in the workplace. Comptroller generals have issued numerous rulings over many years saying that federal workers should not be sidelined for long periods for any reason because of the burden on both taxpayers and the employees, who have no right to appeal paid leave.

Grassley wanted explanations for why so many employees are paid not to work for such long stretches. Eighteen agencies, from VA to Housing and Urban Development, responded to his request for details, but with a lot less detail than the senator asked for, he said.

The State Department, for example, does not report administrative leave to the Office of Personnel Management. The Defense Department did not offer a response, Grassley said. And other agencies provided only vague explanations for why they paid employees not to work for periods that stretch to two and three years, the report said. The result is that it’s hard to know if some uses are warranted or not.

“We found that agencies appear to be using administrative leave as a way to place employees in a catch-all limbo status rather than address personnel problems expeditiously,” the report found. “With no clear standard, agencies’ use of paid administrative leave is largely unchecked and ripe for abuse.”

Supervisors use 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.

Of the $80.6 million paid out last year, the Department of Homeland Security, the government’s third-largest agency, spent almost $1.8 million to keep 88 employees on paid leave. Four were sidelined for some three years or more, and another 17 for two years or more. 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.

Another 2,500 employees at the Veterans Affairs were placed on paid leave for at least a month last year, and the agency acknowledges it didn’t track the details and why they were sent home.

The total tab in salary alone for these absences — ranging from 30 days to more than a year for 46 employees — came to $23 million, according to the Judiciary Committee.