By Deborah Hopkins, December 18, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a class to supervisors. The topic was discipline. We were discussing AWOL and how serious an act of misconduct it is to just not show up for work, and that, in some instances, a single incident of AWOL could warrant removal.

As is often the case, someone from HR was in the classroom. This person spoke up and said that there was an agency policy that said supervisors could not remove an employee for AWOL unless the AWOL exceeded 10 business days in a year.

Three thoughts went through my mind within a half-second:

  1. Are you kidding me? That policy, if there is one, tells everyone in the agency that AWOL is NBD (no big deal).
  2. Is there really a written policy, or is that one of the “This is the way we do it here” things that is actually NOT a policy? Show me the policy.
  3. So, no matter what happened as a result of the employee being AWOL, that employee gets 80 hours of freebies every year to just not show up? How would that work for an employee who is a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, or an air traffic controller, or a border patrol agent, or a security guard? I don’t even want to think about the harm that would occur in those cases.

AWOL is a pay status (or really, a non-pay status if you want to get technical), but it is also a labeled disciplinary charge. The elements of AWOL are:

  1. Employee was absent without authorization, and
  2. If leave was requested, the denial was reasonable.

Savage v. Army, 122 MSPR 612 (2015)

AWOL is Serious

More than once in my life, I’ve been stuck at work for hours after my shift when the person who was supposed to relieve me didn’t bother to show up. It’s never fun to be in that position. And despite what at least some folks think, AWOL is serious business on top of the inconvenience is causes. There is an inherent relationship between continuous unexcused absences and the efficiency of the service, since an essential element of employment is to be on the job when one is expected to be there. To permit employees to remain away from work without leave would seriously impede the function of an agency, impose additional burdens on other employees, and if tolerated, destroy the morale of those who meet their obligations. Ajanaku v. DoD, 44 MSPR 350, 355 (1990).

Indeed, MSPB has found, for the last 40 years, that even a few hours of AWOL warrants discipline, up to and including removal. In an early AWOL case following the implementation of the Civil Service Reform Act, the MSPB found that four unexcused absences totaling 17 hours in a one-week period warranted termination. Banks v. DLA, 29 MSPR 436 (1985).

AWOL for Employees Actually at Work

Did you know an employee can be AWOL even if she is at work? There are a number of situations that culminate in this kind of scenario. An agency may charge an employee AWOL for conducting personal business while on duty. Mitchell v. DoD, 22 MSPR 271 (1984). Discipline for sleeping on the job or wasting time is imposed in the same manner as discipline for AWOL. Golden v. USPS, 60 MSPR 268, 273 (1994). AWOL is the proper charge when an employee is ordered to another worksite (e.g. training), but instead reports to the regular worksite, or the employee remains on agency premises (e.g. lunch room), but not at the specified work location. Moreover, 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).

Leave Restriction and AWOL

Though not a form of discipline, an employee removed for AWOL who has received a Leave Restriction Letter can be disciplined more severely than an AWOL employee who has not been given a leave restriction letter. This is probably most relevant in the “comparator employee” Douglas factor analysis. McNab v. Army, 2014 MSPB 79.

Disciplining for AWOL

You’ll need to do a Douglas factors analysis to determine what the appropriate penalty is for an employee who is AWOL. AWOL charges usually result in progressive discipline, particularly when the amount of AWOL is measured in hours rather than days and the harm is not great. Here’s the FELTG approach.

1st offense AWOL: Reprimand

2nd offense AWOL: Reprimand in Lieu of Suspension

  • Warn that a future act of misconduct will result in removal. This makes far more logical sense than suspending an employee (sending them home) when they didn’t bother to come to work.

3rd offense AWOL: Propose Removal

  • In Douglas analysis, Factor 1, emphasize harm:
    • Coworkers having to do the employee’s work
    • Services not being provided
    • Increased expenses
    • Anything else relevant

And there you have it. Remember, if the AWOL was significant in time or there was great harm or potential for harm in the absence, you can jump right to the removal. Good luck out there. [email protected]

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