A report by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) inspector general capped off two years of investigations into the misuse of paid leave at the department, revealing between 2013 and 2016, nearly 250 DOI employees were on extended paid administrative leave, costing taxpayers more than $6 million.
Biggest Offender: NPS
With 69 employees earning $2,059,968 while on paid extended leave, DOI National Park Service (NPS) employees cost taxpayers the most money in this regard, the March 30 report noted. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had the most employees on extended administrative leave, 83, collecting a combined $1,821,214.
Administrative leave is typically an excused absence from work for things like blood donations and weather closures. Such leave is sometimes to treat employee performance or misconduct issues, but federal guidelines direct agencies to do so only for brief absences and only if there is no reasonable alternative.
Paul Driessen, a senior policy analyst for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says extended paid leave is sometimes appropriate, as when an employee is accused of a crime or misbehavior.
“No one should be deprived of employment or income until guilt can be demonstrated,” Driessen said. “But that process should not drag on for years.
“If guilt is determined or the employee resigns rather than be convicted or terminated, there should be repercussions,” said Driessen. “Loss of pay, benefits, and pension payments, extending backward and/or forward, should be among the options.”
Of 30 employees on extended paid leave of 45 or more days, 22 faced misconduct allegations. The inspector general determined the amount of time on paid leave was exacerbated by legal requirements, agency inefficiencies, and lax documentation.
The report details a case in which the NPS proposed firing an employee in 2014, yet NPS inefficiency resulted in the process dragging on for 751 days and costing taxpayers almost $160,000 in salary before the worker was finally removed.
In another case documented in the report, a U.S. Park Police officer spent more than 400 days on paid leave while under investigation for drinking on the job. Even after the officer admitted to the offense, removing him from his position took more than a year, during which time he collected more than $100,000 in salary.
Reform and More Reform
Before the report was released, DOI claimed its administrative leave policy did not require documentation of approved extended leaves or that alternatives to paid leave be considered. In response to the inspector general report, the agency revamped its documentation procedures and shortened allowable administrative leave time from 45 days to 14.
DOI spokeswoman Heather Swift says things are going to change further under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
“Secretary Zinke made clear on day one his intent to lead the department by the highest ethical standards and put a stop to the waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Swift in an e-mail.
The DOI report follows a similar 2015 inspector general report on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found EPA granted paid leave to employees written up for disruptive behavior, insubordination, drug possession, and knowingly having sex with a minor. In addition, in a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee investigation, the General Accounting Office calculated 17 agencies spent nearly $80.6 million in 2014 on employee administrative leave cases of one month or more.
Congress passed the Administrative Leave Act of 2016, reforming executive agency administrative leave policies, as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The law clearly defines and restricts administrative leave to 10 work days per calendar year, creates separate leave categories, and spells out documentation requirements.
Driessen says it’s unclear whether these reforms will be implemented and enforced.
“Whether they will be enacted and carried out remains to be seen,” said Driessen. “Especially in the current atmosphere, with numerous career, pre-Trump political appointees still in the government, powerful employee unions, and when most congressional Democrats and much of the media have seemingly resolved to battle President Trump on every possible reform.
“The paucity of mid-level Trump appointees to this point makes implementing reforms more difficult,” Driessen said. “It is likely to be a long-term process, raising the question of who will demonstrate the greatest perseverance.”
Kathy Hoekstra ([email protected]) is a regulatory policy reporter for Watchdog.org.
Office of the Inspector General, “Insufficient Documentation of Evaluation Use of Extended Administrative Leave at the U.S. Department of the Interior,” U.S. Department of the Interior, March 30, 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/insufficient-documentation-of-evaluation-use-of-extended-administrative-leave-at-the-us-department-of-the-interior