A House committee on Tuesday addressed, on a mostly bipartisan basis, two often-controversial situations in which federal employees who are not performing their official duties are paid as if they were.
The House Oversight Committee passed a bill to generally cap at 14 days per year the use of “administrative leave” when employees are facing discipline for misconduct or poor performance. That leave, sometimes called excused absence, is paid time off that does not reduce vacation time or other forms of paid leave.
The Government Accountability Office, agency inspectors general and congressional committees have issued a string of reports criticizing the extensive use of that time, especially when the purpose is to keep employees away from the workplace while an agency conducts an investigation that may lead to discipline. In some cases, those periods have lasted more than a year.
“Administrative leave is an appropriate tool, to a point. . . . It’s not fair to the employee, it’s not fair to the government for this to go on in perpetuity,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), said.
The committee accepted an amendment from Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) to address concerns that employees may be put on extended unpaid leave if an agency didn’t finish its investigation within the 14 days. After that point, the employee generally would have to be returned to work while the investigation continues; however, agencies could use 30 more days of paid leave if returning the employee would pose certain risks.
A Senate committee recently passed a separate bipartisan bill restricting administrative leave in a different way, by generally allowing only five consecutive days of such leave. Within limits, agencies could put employees on paid leave during investigations and during the period in which employees can respond to proposed discipline before it is finalized, although management would first have to consider other options, including reassignments or telework.
The panel also passed a bill to require annual government-wide reports on “official time,” which is on-the-clock time that some employees can use for certain union-related purposes. Federal labor law allows it as a trade-off for the duty of federal-employee unions to represent all workers in their bargaining units regardless of whether they pay dues.
The most recent government-wide report, issued in late 2014, showed that in 2012, an average of 2.8 hours was used per bargaining unit employee, up from 2.6 in 2008 to 2010 and about the same as in 2011. The value of the 3.4 million hours used in 2012 was $157 million.
“We’re years behind in getting updated information,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who sponsored an amendment to also require agencies to report on the value of the working space they provide to unions. “This is all about accountability, and I think taxpayers have a right to know how official time is being used.”
Some congressional Republicans have pushed bills for years to better track official time or even eliminate it. Chaffetz recently sent letters to two dozen large agencies asking them for data on the practice, including how many employees spend all of their working hours on union duties and information on the space provided.
Several Democrats stressed that official time is allowed only for purposes such as negotiating contracts and attending labor-management meetings and that it can’t be used for internal union business such as to solicit new members or to conduct union elections. “I think this bill is a solution in search of a problem,” Lynch said.
Both Hice’s amendment and the bill passed by voice vote, with some dissent.
The committee also passed a bill to give the Office of Special Counsel new powers to examine agency records during its investigations into complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers. Also, agencies that do not carry out OSC’s recommendations to discipline responsible officials would have to explain themselves.
Separately, the House late Monday passed a bill to speed up the federal hiring process by eliminating what can be a duplicative step in assessing applicants. During that process, agencies prepare a list of candidates who are qualified and hire from that list. But another agency hiring for a similar position may not rely on another agency’s determination but instead must make one of its own.
Under the bill, an agency could hire from a list of applicants who have been deemed qualified but not hired by another agency, under certain conditions. The measure passed the Senate earlier and now goes to President Obama.