By Barbara Haga, April 11, 2022
Excessive absence seems so basic we shouldn’t need to address it anymore. However, questions do still arise about what works and what doesn’t. Occasionally, someone asks a question about something new, as happened recently when a FELTG customer inquired about excessive absence and COVID-related leave. First, let’s trace how we got here.
Back in the olden days of excessive absence cases when I was a Navy HR practitioner, the interpretation of when excessive absence worked was that the employee had to exhaust available paid leave, both sick and annual, and then go on leave without pay for a significant period for the agency to be able to proceed. That left management in a tough spot when the employee had done the right thing and accumulated potentially thousands of hours of sick leave. Board decisions added further confusion over the years regarding whether you really had to wait for the employee to use up the paid leave.
In 1993, the FMLA created another leave category that was guaranteed each 12-month period. However, it could not be included in an excessive absence charge.
The Board resolved the first issue about what counted in the excessive absence charge in McCauley v. Interior, 116 MSPR 484 (2011). In this decision, the Board overruled prior interpretations about what leave could be counted. Here is the key ruling:
There appears to be some inconsistency in Board precedent regarding what leave can be used to support an adverse action based on excessive leave use. See, e.g., Curtis v. U.S. Postal Service, 111 M.S.P.R. 626, ¶¶ 9-11 (2009) (holding that an agency cannot discipline an individual for his use of approved sick leave but can discipline an employee for his use of unscheduled LWOP); Allen v. Department of the Army, 76 M.S.P.R. 564, 570 (1997) (holding that an agency can bring an action against an employee for excessive absence even if the absence is excused on grounds of poor health); Webb v. U.S. Postal Service, 10 M.S.P.R. 536, 543 (1982) (holding that an adverse action taken by an agency against an employee based on periods of approved leave does not promote the efficiency of the service). Because the efficiency of the service may suffer in the absence of an employee’s services, regardless of the type of leave used, we hold that whether the leave is sick leave, annual leave, LWOP, or AWOL will not be dispositive to a charge of excessive absences. To the extent that the Board has held or implied otherwise in cases such as Curtis, 111 M.S.P.R. 626, Ryan v. Department of the Air Force, 107 M.S.P.R. 71 (2007), Scorcia v. U.S. Postal Service, 78 M.S.P.R. 588 (1998), Holderness v. Defense Commissary Agency, 75 M.S.P.R. 401 (1997), Clark v. Department of the Navy, 12 M.S.P.R. 428 (1982), and Webb, 10 M.S.P.R. 536, those cases are expressly overruled. (italics added)
The next paragraph reiterated that FMLA hours could not be included in the charge:
“Because Congress’s clear intent when enacting FMLA was to provide job security for individuals who needed to be temporarily absent due to a serious medical condition (whether their own or that of a family member addressed by the FMLA legislation) and the law unambiguously promises this job security, use of FMLA in any calculation to remove an employee is inappropriate. Therefore, it is improper to consider FMLA absences as a part of the equation when evaluating if an employee has taken excessive leave.”
A footnote states:
“When enacting FMLA, Congress found that there was a “lack of employment policies to accommodate working parents [that could] force individuals to choose between job security and parenting” and there was “inadequate job security for employees who have serious health conditions that prevent them from working for temporary periods.” H.R. Rep. No. 103-8(I) at 1 (1993).” (italics added)
Excessive Absence and Savage
In Savage v. Army, 122 MSPR 612 (2015), the Board revised the interpretation in McCauley that AWOL hours could be included in excessive absence charges, since an excessive absence charge by its nature is a charge regarding approved absences and AWOL is unapproved. Thus, since 2015, AWOL must be cited separately in its own charge.
A reader asked whether Emergency Paid Leave (EPL) could be counted in an excessive absence charge. We won’t know for sure until such a case is ruled on by the Board, but here is the conclusion I reached and the basis for it.
EPSLA and EPL
We have two different laws implementing COVID-related leave. In 2020, the leave was implemented by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which established two paid leave benefits, but only the Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSLA) applied to most Federal employees.
The EPSLA regulations issued by the Department of Labor begin with the following statement: “The Department of Labor published in the Federal Register on April 6, 2020, a temporary rule to implement public health emergency leave under Title I of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and emergency paid sick leave to assist working families facing public health emergencies arising out of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic.” (italics added)
EPSLA included a section on prohibited actions which stated, “It shall be unlawful for any employer to discharge, discipline, or in any other manner discriminate against any employee who — (1) takes leave in accordance with this Act; and (2) has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this Act (including a proceeding that seeks enforcement of this Act), or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding.” Thus, it’s clear that the 2020 type of COVID-related leave could not have been used in an excessive absence case.
EPL was created by President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was signed in March 2021. There is no preamble in the Act itself or anything in Sec. 4001 which created the EPL benefit for Federal employees that describes Congress’ intent in providing the leave. But it is important to remember that EPL was designed to give a much greater amount of leave tied to the same public health emergency that FFCRA had dealt with. It should also be noted that the Treasury provided funds for agencies to receive reimbursement for the Emergency Paid Leave specifically to limit the impact on agencies.
I see significant parallels between the language regarding implementation of FMLA, which was specifically enacted to protect workers because of temporary absence due to a serious medical condition, and the language that is used where Congress has responded to COVID-related absences. The 2020 bill specifically indicated there could be no disciplinary penalty for its use. My gut reaction is that the MSPB will say an employee should not be penalized for using the EPL provided in 2021 specifically because of the pandemic. [email protected]