By Deborah Hopkins, November 17, 2020

Nearly every day, we at FELTG get questions about COVID-related federal workplace issues. Here’s a recent one worth sharing with the rest of the FELTG Nation.

Dear FELTG:

I was wondering if there was any guidance on how long an agency must allow an employee to remain on Leave Without Pay status if the employee is high risk. Hypothetically, we have employees working in the stores so telework is not an option. If an employee has been given a medical note stating they should avoid exposure or remain at home, and has now been on LWOP for several months, where’s the limit? At this time, there is no end in sight with regards to the pandemic, so no return to work in sight either.

And our FELTG response:

In some ways this is a hypothetical “who really knows” situation because we don’t have any precedent for this pandemic. OPM has encouraged flexibility with telework and scheduling, but obviously someone who works in a store needs to be onsite to do that. Here are a few general thoughts related to your hypothetical.

The employee’s LWOP may be a reasonable accommodation, since the agency is granting LWOP because the employee’s condition prevents him or her from coming to work. Of course, whether it’s an RA depends on why the employee is high risk: Does the employee have asthma or an autoimmune disorder, for example (disabilities)? Or is the employee over 65 and high-risk according to CDC guidance (not a disability)?

Assuming this is an RA, the proper analysis would be to ask at what point the LWOP becomes an undue hardship for the agency, because EEOC’s stance is that attendance is not an essential function of a federal job. And if it’s not yet documented as an RA, that would be an important thing to do, to show the agency fulfilled its obligation to accommodate the employee.

The next thing to do, after the LWOP was determined to be an undue hardship, would be to consider reassignment to a job the employee could perform from home.

If all that failed, this might be a case where the agency could remove the employee for medical inability to perform, depending on what the medical documentation says, and whether a reassignment was available.

If the employee is high-risk simply because of age, or because they live with someone who is high-risk, then none of the RA steps above will apply. In that case, the agency would need to issue a return to work order (whenever LWOP goes beyond a reasonable time), and then could remove the employee if they refused to report. As far as how much LWOP is too much, we really can’t answer that – some agencies allow employees to use it for years. Others are more strict. It really depends on your agency’s staffing situation.

Down the road, this might become an excessive absence removal, especially if the LWOP goes on for over a year, and the return to work is not foreseeable (be sure to follow the Cook analysis if you go this route, and look at cases to help determine how much leave is “excessive” under the law).

All that said, this employee could be reassigned as well, not as part of RA but because the agency has a business need to fill a job elsewhere and doesn’t want to fire the employee.

This is a tough situation. COVID is out of everyone’s control, and agencies want to protect high-risk employees. However, agencies also have to get the work done. Lots to consider here. Good luck! Hopkins@FELTG.com

The information presented here is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contacting FELTG in any way/format does not create the existence of an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

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