Lawmakers Lash Out at Agencies for Paying $3.1 Billion to Idle Workers
Policy + Politics

Lawmakers Lash Out at Agencies for Paying $3.1 Billion to Idle Workers

The federal government’s practice of placing workers accused of misconduct on paid administrative leave for months or even years at a time has long drawn scrutiny from members of Congress. They say agencies are abusing the system and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Now, a new report from the Government Accountability Office has put federal agencies back under the spotlight—issuing the first-ever report detailing exactly how much the federal government is wasting by not dealing promptly and efficiently with workers on paid administrative leave.

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Over the last three years, federal agencies paid $3.1 billion for workers on administrative leave, $775 million of which went toward the salaries of 57,000 employees who were off work for one month or longer.

The GAO reviewed five departments including the Defense Department, Veterans Affairs, U.S. Agency for International Development, General Services Administration and the Department of the Interior and found that of those, about 97 percent of federal workers took between one and 20 days of paid leave. Meanwhile, 263 workers took between one and three years off.

“The GAO report offers new details on the extent to which federal agencies are granting employees—included those facing disciplinary action—taxpayer-funded vacations for extended periods of time,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who along with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Chuck Grassley (R-IO) requested the GAO’s investigation, said in an emailed statement.

“Gross overuse of paid administrative leave wastes taxpayer funds and underscores dysfunctional agency management that often prefers to dither on personnel problems rather than expeditiously resolve them.”

DoD for example, placed some 8,600 workers on administrative leave for up to three months, 900 employees on leave for up to one year and 123 workers on leave for more than a year, according to the report.

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The main reason the workers were put on leave, the auditors said, was because they were under investigation for misconduct. Of course, workers were also put on leave for other reasons—like whistleblowing or a dispute among other employees.

“Instead of firing misbehaving employees, Washington rewards those who have broken the law or engaged in misconduct by paying them to do nothing—sometimes for many years,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said in an email to The Fiscal Times.

Coburn released a separate report today which highlighted several examples of federal employees who were placed on administrative leave after allegedly committing wrongdoings—and are still collecting government paychecks.

Earlier this year, a CNN investigation revealed massive cover-ups at the Veterans Affairs Department —where executives at the Phoenix VA Health care System were caught covering up long wait times and maintained a hidden list of veterans who had been waiting for treatment for months. Those executives, according to the report, were put on administrative leave in May and continue to receive their government salaries of $85,000.

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Of course, the VA did eventually fire some executives responsible for the agency-wide cover-ups after Congress and Obama approved legislation making it easier to terminate senior level federal employees. Still, Coburn and others say the law hasn’t led to many terminations amid the wrongdoing at the VA and other agencies.

“This lack of accountability wastes tens of millions of dollars a year, dishonors true public servants, and further undermines taxpayers’ faith in our government,” Coburn said.

In another example, a secret service agent on the president’s security detail was placed on administrative leave after being caught drunk and passed out in a hotel hallway while traveling to Amsterdam with the president. After clearly violating the Secret Service’s policy barring agents from consuming alcohol 10 hours before assignment, the agent was put on paid leave –still raking in his GS-13 salary of at least $72,000—while being replaced temporarily.

And an Environmental Protection Agency employee who was caught watching porn at work and admitted to viewing an upwards of six hours of porn a day at work was also put on paid administrative leave and is still raking in a government paycheck.

Though there are no laws regulating federal administrative leave, the Office of Personnel Management issues guidance and says employees are permitted to take leave for a handful or reasons including donating an organ, attending the funeral of a relative in the military, and for weather-related reasons, among other things.

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However OPM’s guidance limits the extensive use of administrative leave for employees who are considered a threat to the agencies operations. Still, GAO found that the agencies were using wide discretion—which varied greatly from agency to agency. Of course, workers were also put on leave for other reasons—like whistleblowing or a dispute among other employees.

And while some don’t think the workers being investigated for misconduct should be on paid leave, others think it would be unfair for them to go without pay.

“It’s not unreasonable that they are on paid administrative leave. These are allegations. You are innocent until proven guilty,” said Carol Bonosaro, the president of the Senior Executives Association, a Washington-based trade group representing senior level workers in the federal government.

Still, Bonosaro also said agencies should get away from being so reliant on resorting to paid administrative leave when investigating their workers and instead should reevaluate their practices.

The GAO recommends that OPM work with agencies to develop streamlined guidance on administrative leave policies and which activities should be paid and which should not.

OPM agreed with the auditors’ recommendations.

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