(Susan Walsh/AP)

The use and misuse of paid administrative leave in federal agencies is getting increased attention because of cases such as these at the Department of Homeland Security:

— A federal law enforcement officer was on leave for more than three years while being investigated on allegations of criminal and administrative misconduct. He was paid $455,000 in salary and benefits for not working.

— Another staffer, also on leave for more than three years, received about $340,000 while being investigated. After the lengthy inquiry, the agency determined it did not have sufficient evidence against the employee, who returned to duty.

— One employee was placed on administrative leave after exhibiting hostile behavior at work. The leave extended for more than 20 months because of a series of medical and psychiatric exams, requests for information and miscommunications regarding medical records. In March 2014, the employee was determined to be a threat to others and fired.

The Government Accountability Office collected these examples in a report about DHS that documents how administrative leave doesn’t always work right.

It found that 116 DHS employees were on administrative leave for personnel reasons for at least one year between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015. Their total estimated salary was $19.8 million.

That’s a lot of money to pay people who aren’t on the job. But not working doesn’t mean vacation time for those not allowed to work.

The report reminded me of Robert Whitmore, a former Labor Department inspector who was placed on leave for about two years while his misconduct case was investigated. He said officials rejected his request to work from home. Instead they paid his $150,000 salary for him to do nothing.

“My main goal is to get back to work and do my job,” he said at the time.

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration eventually got its way — to a point. Whitmore didn’t get his job back. But OSHA didn’t win, either. After a federal court overturned his firing, OSHA agreed to a settlement paying Whitmore $820,000 on top of the two years’ salary when he was on leave — a total of more than $1 million.

It’s cases such as these that have spiked interest in fixing administrative leave. During the 2011-to-2013 period, DHS alone accounted for more than a quarter of the federal employees on leave for a year or more. The 263 total employees on leave during that time had salaries of more than $31 million. Seventy-one of them were from DHS, “more employees than any other department,” GAO said.

Justin Greenberg, a DHS spokesman, said the department “had already begun implementing strict limitations on the use of administrative leave,” before the latest GAO report. “DHS agrees with the GAO’s recommendation that we evaluate the results of our administrative leave policy, and we will continue to do so [on] an ongoing basis to identify successful practices, address potential inefficiencies, make appropriate adjustments, and share results across the Department.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and Congress are trying to rein in administrative leave. The Office of Personnel Management told agencies in May that administrative leave should be “as brief as possible under the circumstances.”

The House is considering legislation that would prohibit placing federal employees on administrative leave “for more than 14 total days for reasons relating to misconduct or performance.”

A Senate bill says “agency use of administrative leave . . . has exceeded reasonable amounts.” It would limit the leave to five consecutive days but would allow for investigative leave, without loss of pay, if the employees posed a threat.

While attention often falls to the employees on leave, it is management that needs to explain any abuse of the process.

“Putting an employee on administrative leave during a disciplinary process is a management decision, so the notion that the leave could be abused by the employee is misguided,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “One thing we do not support is to provide incentives to management to drag out an investigation or limit due-process procedures by arbitrarily cutting off the time an employee can be on administrative leave. The burden to act more quickly must be on those who have control over the process, not on the employee who has no control.”

Read more:

Court indicates Labor Dept. went after employee for whistleblowing activities