By Deborah Hopkins, June 23, 2020

Last week, we published an article about an employee who left his laptop charger in the office at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The employee claimed he worked 40 hours a week for eight weeks, even though he later admitted he had done no work during that time. I characterized it as an open-and-shut case. It wasn’t seen that way by a number of you in FELTG Nation.

If you haven’t read the article, or didn’t read it closely, I urge you to take a look before you continue reading this article.

Many of our readers had comments, and some strong feelings, about the matter. Most of the feedback fell into three areas:

  1. The potential existence of a backup charger or at-home computer alternative.
  2. The investigation of IT records to see if the employee was working through some other mechanism.
  3. The issue with supervisor not tracking the employee’s [lack of] work product.

Below are some of the comments we received in each category, followed by an official FELTG response:

The Forgotten Charger

FELTG reader comments:

  • Some years back I was sent out of state on a business trip and forgot my charger. I…drove over to a Best Buy, and got a new power cord. Problem solved in about one hour. In today’s COVID world, I’d probably buy one from Amazon. But just because the employee forgot his power cord isn’t evidence the employee wasn’t working. How about checking on his output??
  • Perhaps the employee simply opted to buy another charger or had a reasonable substitute already at their home – they are readily available.
  • In reply, the employee will obviously claim he had another charger cable at home (and he could’ve purchased on Amazon).
  • I have a docking station, monitor, and mouse of my own for my home office.
  • Does the agency allow the employee to work on his own personal device from home?
  • Most likely there was a back-up charger. I have been telecommuting for 4 months and my charger burnt out twice. I was out of commission for a week.
  • Admittedly I did this and worked on my desktop for all of quarantine.

Official FELTG response: All excellent points, and details you would absolutely want to find out during your management inquiry or misconduct investigation. If the employee was allowed to use a personal device, or bought a backup charger, or had a docking station for his laptop at home, then as long as he was working the 40 hours a week he claimed, we don’t have misconduct.

The employee’s misconduct was lying on his time card – not leaving his charger at work. If you look closely at the article’s application of the five elements of discipline, you’ll see the employee was charged with the time and attendance violation, not leaving the charger in the office. A disciplinary charge of “leaving your laptop charger at the agency” may not rise to the level of misconduct, especially if it was accidental.

IT Records

FELTG reader comments:

  • Most agencies can see if the network was accessed or logged into.
  • The one thing I may do is have IT perform an evaluation of his computer usage as further confirmation that he hasn’t logged on and worked.
  • The IT people should be able to audit access to the [employee’s work] files, if nothing else.

Official FELTG response: In some cases, you would want to pull IT records to verify if the employee was working at all. Let’s modify the hypothetical a bit and say the employee was working on a personal device through the agency’s VPN, and claimed 40 hours of work a week, but the supervisor suspects he was working less. A search of IT records could show the amount of time the employee was on the VPN to give the agency a better idea of how much potential time theft was involved. Other considerations, such as whether the employee does work that does not require computer or VPN use, would also be relevant.

But in the original hypothetical, the employee admitted he did not work at all. Yet, he claimed 40 hours a week. That admission is preponderant evidence, so the agency could propose discipline based on that evidence alone. Yes, the IT records would provide additional evidence, but they wouldn’t be required because the burden of proof in discipline cases is only preponderant evidence – or substantial evidence, at the VA.

Supervisor Oversight

FELTG reader comments:

  • The burning question in my mind is how could the supervisor not know there was a problem; when you send people home to work, it doesn’t mean you don’t keep tabs on what they’re doing daily. Why wasn’t the supervisor communicating on at least a weekly basis and asking for accountability, not just of this employee but every employee?
  • Simplest way to check up is to ask to see work product if you doubt. Why are they having to use “inference” of a power cord sitting at the office rather than checking with IT for emails, and checking other systems for evidence of work? Seems to me the supervisor needs at least a counseling for failing to do his job as well!
  • Should we also address the supervisor who failed to see no work from this employee for months?
  • There should have been ways for management to create check points/milestones or activity goals to ensure this person was working.
  • If I was the said employee’s supervisor, I would be a little concerned about my own “failure to supervise” allegation.

Official FELTG response: Right on! This hypothetical supervisor failed to monitor the employee’s work, because no work product in eight weeks is unacceptable in any government job. As the previous article alluded, we could write another article entirely on the supervisor’s potential performance and misconduct issues.

Thanks, as always, for your responses. We loving hear from you, and enjoy the conversations. For a more in-depth discussion on related topics, be sure to join us July 1 (that’s next week!) for the 75-minute webinar Performance and Conduct Problems During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Holding Remote Employees AccountableHopkins@FELTG.com

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