US military in Japan seeks consistency in rules for leave and quarantine
By ERICA EARL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 23, 2020
Note: This article has been corrected.
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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. Forces Japan is trying to create a policy that allows all service members to travel without spending two weeks of their leave in quarantine because of coronavirus safety concerns, according to the command’s senior enlisted adviser.
The leave question is gaining steam as the winter holidays approach, Chief Master Sgt. Rick Winegardner said during a Facebook Live session Wednesday with American Forces Network.
“We are working wicked hard to make sure people can take some leave this year, and we are especially working on the quarantining piece,” he said.
USFJ and the Japanese government require all U.S. service members, Defense Department civilian employees, contractors and family members who enter Japan for the first time or from travel abroad to spend a minimum 14 days in quarantine to stem the virus’ spread.
Some branches deduct leave time from their members for the quarantine period; others do not. Even within installations, leave policy can be mixed.
USFJ is working with the defense secretary’s office in Washington, D.C., and Indo-Pacific Command to simplify the leave policy in time for the holidays, Winegardner said.
Each military branch sets its own policy based on guidance and policies set by the defense secretary, USFJ spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Derrick Carlson said Wednesday.
“But we understand that in a joint environment, this can create some confusion across the force,” he said.
For example, the Army will not deduct from soldiers’ leave balances the time they spend in quarantine following personal travel abroad, said U.S. Army spokesman Maj. Elias Chelala on Tuesday.
The Marines also charge leave time for quarantine following any personal travel abroad, a spokesman for III Marine Expeditionary Force, 1st Lt. Pawel Puczko, said Thursday.
Active-duty Navy personnel assigned to Japan are not charged leave for quarantine or restricted movement following personal leave, said Navy Region Japan spokesman Marshall Smith. However, he said this policy may vary across Navy commands in Japan.
The Department of Defense has separate policies for its civilian personnel.
For example, Department of Defense Education Activity employees in a coronavirus-related quarantine may be eligible for weather and safety leave or emergency paid sick leave, DODEA spokesperson Miranda Ferguson said Thursday.
If the quarantine is advised by a health care provider, it counts as emergency paid sick leave. If it is DOD-mandated, it can count as weather and safety leave. Ferguson said the policy is applied on a case-by-case basis.
In some cases, agencies permit teleworking in quarantine, which alleviates the leave issue.
Michael Murray, a civilian employee with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command at Yokosuka Naval Base, said he worked from home after returning from a trip to the United States. He was not required to burn any leave time, he said Thursday by Facebook Messenger.
At Yokota Air Base, USFJ headquarters in western Tokyo, airmen who return from personal travel outside of Japan are put in a special-duty status while in quarantine. They are not required to use leave for that, according to 374th Airlift Wing spokeswoman Kaori Matsukasa.
However, Maj. Amanda Steen of the 374th Medical Group at Yokota said her command is charging leave time for the days its personnel spend in quarantine after personal travel abroad.
For one couple at Yokota, the leave question is leading them to delay travel plans.
Air Force spouse Allison Freeman said her husband, Staff Sgt. Cameron Freeman, is not sure whether he’ll be charged leave for time in quarantine, so they’ve held off on a trip stateside to see family.
“We had a baby at the beginning of the pandemic, so no one has met him,” Freeman told Stars and Stripes on Thursday via Facebook Messenger. “A lot of family just doesn’t understand why we won’t come home, and leave is the biggest reason.”
Correction: This report has been corrected to reflect that neither the Marines nor the Army in Japan deducts from service members’ leave balances the time they spend in quarantine or restriction of movement due to coronavirus measures.