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Limits sought on paid time off for federal employees facing discipline

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee is set to act Wednesday on one of the few federal employee issues where there is bipartisan agreement: that too many agencies put too many employees on paid time off for too long beyond their regular leave time.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans to take up a bill cutting back on use of "administrative leave," which is paid time away from the workplace that doesn't result in a loss of vacation time or other forms of leave.

The practice, also called excused absence, has drawn renewed congressional attention since a 2014 Government Accountability Office report showing that over the three years through September 2013, more than 53,000 employees had been on that form of leave for more than a month, and that 263 had been on it for more than a year.

While the leave can be approved for many purposes, ranging from snowstorms to blood donations, in many cases the leave was used to get the employee away from the work site pending disciplinary action.

The Office of Personnel Management issued a memo following that report to tighten use of administrative leave, but the bill before the committee would be more strict.

It would generally require that an employee be given a temporary assignment, transferred or allowed to telework when the agency is conducting an investigation that could lead to discipline, or has issued a notice of planned discipline. If the employee's continued working would create a safety issue or certain other problems for the agency, the employee could be put on paid leave during those times.

"Taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill when federal employees are sent home for lengthy periods of time," said co-sponsor Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in introducing the bill late last month. "This bill reduces government waste and holds federal agencies accountable while protecting the rights of workers."

Another co-sponsor, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been pressing agencies on their use of the leave, issuing a report late in 2015 saying that 17 agencies spent more than $80 million to place employees on paid administrative leave for a month or more in fiscal 2014, and that their stated reasons for doing so sometimes were vague.

The chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee, Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Tom Carper, D-Del., also are co-sponsors.

The measure also would require agencies to better account for dismissing employees with pay for other purposes, such as severe weather or other emergencies.

The committee meanwhile is set to vote on the nomination of Beth Cobert to become OPM director; she has filled the position on an acting basis since last summer. At her confirmation hearing last week, members of both parties spoke in her favor.

However, her nomination may be held up by a dispute over how OPM applied a provision of the Affordable Care Act to members of Congress and to certain staffers who were forced out of the federal employee health program by that law. That interpretation allowed them to continue receiving an employer contribution toward their health care if they enrolled instead in a certain plan available through an ACA exchange in the District of Columbia.

Some Republicans in Congress argue that the policy is contrary to the law's intent, and have been pressing OPM on the issue for more than two years. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., recently raised the prospect of putting a hold on Cobert's nomination.

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