The Washington Post has written about a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that makes the claim that over 57,000 federal workers are on paid administrative leave for over a month.
Tens of thousands of federal workers are being kept on paid leave for at least a month — and often for longer stretches that can reach a year or more — while they wait to be punished for misbehavior or cleared and allowed to return to work, government records show.
During a three-year period that ended last fall, more than 57,000 employees were sent home for a month or longer. The tab for these workers exceeded $775 million in salary alone.
But a forthcoming report by the Government Accountability Office found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 more were kept off the job for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. The study represents the first time auditors have calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave.
All of this is despite clear government regulations stating that paid time off should never go beyond a few days; the Justice Department, in one example, limits the time to ten days unless the assistant attorney general approves a longer period. However, one particular case – of someone who was put on leave, and wanted a resolution – indicates a clear problem with the left hand not talking to the right:
“Six months went by and we didn’t hear anything,” said Scott Balovich, who was put on administrative leave from his computer job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska. “You’re so anxious. You don’t know if you’ve got a job. You’re getting paid, but it’s no vacation.”
Balovich was kept out of work while investigators examined how pornographic images had gotten onto his computer hard drive. He ultimately was cleared of any personal involvement and returned to his job last week. His attorney, Debra D’Agostino, a founder of the Federal Practice Group, said he “got stuck in the inertia of bureaucracy.”
Linked in the piece is another WaPo report from December 30, 2012, going over the minutia of the federal workers themselves when they get stuck in legal pergatory.
Paul Brachfeld, the inspector general for the National Archives, planned to ring in the new year with his wife with a relaxed visit to their vacation home near Bethany Beach, Del. In October, the couple took a cruise to Puerto Rico. Brachfeld runs every morning in Silver Spring, hikes with Spree, his Jack Russell terrier, in the woods most afternoons and catches up with his adult daughters in the evening. All while collecting his $186,000 government salary.
These days, his life seems like one long vacation. The veteran watchdog for the historical records agency is entering his fourth month on paid time off, one of an unspecified number of federal employees who are collecting paychecks and benefits to do .?.?. nothing. At least nothing to advance the immediate interests of the government.
In a system that rarely fires people, no one can say how many are on paid administrative leave. It’s one number the government apparently doesn’t track.
There are many reasons for this, and most of them involve a desire to not be sued by workers. Between union contracts, interpersonal squabbles and outright sour grapes, workers are a threat to sue their employer, and when it’s the federal government, there’s additional layers of oversight, obfuscation and confusion worked in. This leads to many people having an interest to prevent that from happening, and those people tend to work slow.
As far as direct supervisors – middle managers – are concerned, putting someone on administrative leave is a win-win situation: they get rid of a problem for whatever reason, and they don’t have to pay the person so they could care less. What’s another $50,000? But it adds up, to the tune of $775m, plus benefits, and asking the government to oversee itself in this case is like asking a wolf to guard the flock.
The answer, however, isn’t necessarily to just make government work right-to-work. Between existing workers unions (which have brought good things to American workers all around, whether they’re union or not), the continued skittishness of the existing job market, and the potential for abuse due to personal or political connections – imagine a Democratic takeover of an office resulting in any Republicans in that office being thrown out onto the streets – going completely right-to-work would be a tremendous shock to the system that would damage workers and cause tremendous instability in public sector work. The only justification for that is that the resulting inefficiency that comes from such high turnover could potentially lead to a reduction in government because the existing one isn’t working, but breaking ones toys to get new ones is never a solid answer.
The answer here is simply stronger enforcement: five working days of leave, with back pay due if no issues are found or if termination cannot be adequately justified. If an HR department cannot build a case for termination within that amount of time, then the worker can go back to work, even if they’re a “threat”. It will force people to think long and hard before going that route. Government bureaucrats who need a fainting couch reading that can simply look at the other side of the argument – full right-to-work, which I’m sure many of my colleagues would argue for – and pick which side they prefer.