By Deborah Hopkins, March 19, 2020

If you are part of the FELTG Nation, you probably already know that federal employees have significant rights to various types of leave. In fact, starting this fall, most will receive even more leave entitlements, in the form of paid family leave. That said, leave is not always an entitlement. Today I want to discuss some of the myths surrounding federal employee leave.

Myth: Employees always have the right to dictate their leave status if they have leave on the books.

Here’s the scenario: Your employee doesn’t come in to work one day when she’s scheduled, and doesn’t request leave or otherwise notify the supervisor she won’t be in. The next day, she comes in and tells the supervisor to put her on annual leave for yesterday. She has 32 hours of annual leave on the books. Must the supervisor grant the annual leave?

No. Annual leave is not an entitlement, and the supervisor may deny the request so long as the denial is reasonable. Is it reasonable to deny a leave request after the fact, when there is no entitlement, and the employee did not follow proper leave procedures? You bet. The employee who doesn’t come to work when scheduled is not on approved annual leave, she is AWOL.

In addition, there’s also a potential second disciplinary charge for failing to follow leave procedures. If you need good aggravating language, look no further than Yartzoff v. EPA, 38 MSPR 403 (1988). This case discusses how an agency is “doubly burdened” by an unscheduled absence; once for the loss of the employee’s services, and again for the loss of the opportunity to plan for the absence.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Federal employees do not have the legal right to place themselves on leave. There is a three-step procedure that must be followed according to the law regardless of the type of leave requested, and if you’re not doing things this way, you are needlessly making your life more difficult.

  1. Employee submits a leave request according to agency procedures
  2. Supervisor considers the request
  3. Supervisor either grants or denies the request.
    • Sometimes the supervisor must grant the leave; other times it’s discretionary.

That’s the law.

Myth: If an employee is at work, she can’t be charged AWOL.

I think we all know that just because someone is at work, doesn’t mean she is actually working. Since the beginning of time – or at least since the beginning of the Civil Service Reform Act – employees who are on the clock but not doing government-related-work can be charged AWOL, or unauthorized absence if that’s what your agency calls it. A few cases to get you started:

  • An agency may charge an employee with AWOL for conducting personal business while on duty. Mitchell v. DoD, 22 MSPR 271 (1984)
  • Sleeping on the job; wasting time. Golden v. USPS, 60 MSPR 268, 273 (1994)
  • If an employee is insubordinate and is told to leave the work site until he agrees to follow directives, he is not on approved leave; he is AWOL. Lewis v. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 29 MSPR 447 (1985).

Myth: An employee may only use sick leave if he, or a close family member, is incapacitated for duty.

Not long ago, I had a federal employee in my class whose sister had recently died. The employee requested sick leave to attend the funeral, and her supervisor denied the leave request. Well, that denial was absolutely wrong.

Under 5 CFR § 630.401(a)(4), an employee is entitled to use up to 104 hours (13 days) of sick leave each leave year for family care and bereavement, which includes making funeral arrangements or attending the funeral of a family member. The definition of family member in these instances covers a wide range including spouse; parents; parents-in-law; children; brothers; sisters; grandparents; grandchildren; step parents; step children; foster parents; foster children; guardianship relationships; same sex and opposite sex domestic partners; and spouses or domestic partners of the aforementioned, as applicable. Check out OPM’s full list of Definitions Related to Family Member and Immediate Relative for Leave Purposes.

The supervisor in this case could have legally denied the sick leave request only if the relative did not meet the definition of family member, if the employee had already used 104 hours of sick leave on family-related care that leave year, or if the employee did not have accrued sick leave. Otherwise, the leave was an entitlement and should have been granted.

There are also a few other areas where an employee may not be sick but has an entitlement to sick leave (e.g., routine dentist appointment), so you’ll want to be sure to read the regs if you’re not familiar with those.

Myth: The agency may dictate the employee’s pay status during FMLA.

A lot of supervisors miss this one, but the employee who is on FMLA gets to decide if the time off will be recorded as sick leave, annual leave, LWOP, or any combination of the three. Yes, that means an employee can
use LWOP during FMLA and keep all his annual leave and sick leave during FMLA, and save it for a rainy day. The agency has no choice in the matter, so don’t even try to force an employee to use accrued leave. The law is on the employee’s side.

If you like these leave topics, we have an entire training week on Absence, Leave Abuse and Medical Issues in Washington, DC, starting March 30 – or if you’d prefer to wait a few months to travel, September registration is also open. If you find this information helpful, you’re welcome to join us. We’d love to see you there.  [email protected]

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