Sick Leave and FERS: Leave Abuse? Justifiable Cheating? Flexible Ethics?

About 1/3 of readers think it is ethical for a federal employee to sick leave without a medical reason and about 1/3 have taken sick leave when they were not sick. Readers think the system of not crediting sick leave for FERS employees should be changed.

The use and abuse of sick leave by federal employees is a topic that stirs a passionate response from some readers. Moreover, the passion appears to be coming from all sides of the issue.

The crux of the situation is that employees under the CSRS retirement system get credit for unused sick leave. Employees under the FERS retirement system do not get the same credit. There are other trade-offs for both groups with regard to retirement issues as a few readers pointed out in their written comments.

In a series of articles on sick leave, many readers sent in comments to the effect that taking sick leave as it is accumulated is justifiable because employees under the FERS system do not get credit for unused sick leave when they retire. It is not possible to determine if that view is common based on random comments that are sent in.

To explore the issue, we asked readers several questions. More than 500 readers sent in written comments and about 1400 readers responded to the survey questions.

The responses fall into two broad groups. Some think that using sick leave is theirs to use because it has been earned. Therefore, the agency should not question how it is used. Another group thinks that federal employees have an obligation to follow the rules and regulations governing the use of sick leave and attempts to rationalize the the indiscriminate use of the benefit is unfair to the employees who follow the rules.

Readers will certainly interpret the results based in part on their personal situation. But there is a pattern to the responses. 33% of those responding have used sick leave when they were not sick or when it was not for an authorized medical reason. 33% also think it is ethical to use sick leave without having an authorized medical reason.

And here is a response that may surprise or perhaps discourage some agency managers and human resources professionals: 36% of readers responding think that an agency should be more lenient when enforcing sick leave regulations if an employee is in the FERS retirement system.

Here is a quick summary of the results of the survey taken last week.

Have you ever knowingly taken sick leave as a federal employee when you were not sick or it was not used for an authorized medical purpose?

yes: 33%
no: 63%
not sure: 4%

In your view, is it ethical for a federal employee to use sick leave without having an authorized medical reason for using the leave?

yes: 33%
no: 56%
not sure: 11%

As FERS employees do not get credit for unused sick leave upon retirement, should an agency be more lenient in enforcing its sick leave regulations differently for employees who are in FERS?

yes: 36%
no: 64%

Should the system for applying accrued sick leave upon retirement be changed for FERS employees to be the same as it is for CSRS employees?

yes: 85%
no: 8%
not sure: 7%

Comments from Readers

To give you an idea of how employee beliefs about this issue, here is a sample of the comments submitted in resonse to the survey. The first grouping is from those who think it is important to follow or enforce the existing rules on sick leave. The second sample is from readers who think using sick leave at their own discretion is acceptable. Some comments relate to the overall issue on sick leave.

An HR specialist from the VA in Waco, Texas writes: “FERS imployees were hired with the rules for use of sick leave and application for retirement currently in force. The cost for adding would be high to change and cost saving was the reason for the change. If they don’t like it they should work for private industry and get a dose of reality. The old CSRS people will be retired and gone or dead in the next very few years. They just need to grow up and realize what a gravy train they have and look at the real world. ”

A program analyst with GSA in Chicago has a similar view: “Public service is a public trust. Those in civil service should put the interests of the Government and nation ahead of personal convenience. Claiming sick leave improperly results in leave quantities (annual or other) that are unfair to those who are scrupulous in following sick leave policy. To those who claim that FERS is less fair than CSRS, I say that FERS employees receive TSP matches that compensate. If you were hired under FERS, then you should go by the rules, and the CSRS rules are not your concern.”

A supervisor working for the Department of Agriculture says: “I have had too many instances where employees under my supervision have been dishonest in utilizing and documenting their sick leave only to have a legitimate health problem arise and no sick leave left to use. I look upon sick leave as a form of insurance policy…it gives peace of mind to know it is there and you hope you never have to use it”

A budget technician in St. Louis wants to remain honest: “I just can’t bring myself to lie to my supervisor…so I only use sick leave as it is intended.”

A risk analyst for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in Washington, DC may have done a risk analysis of his own situation: “I have over 1,000 hours of sick leave after 15 years in the gov’t. I use it when I am sick or have a doctor’s appt. Hopefully, I’ll never have a need for all of that leave, but it’s nice to have it if someday I get really sick. It would be nice if I could get credit for it when I retire, but the fact that I won’t doesn’t lead me to want to abuse the system.”

An HR assistant with the Army in Tacoma, WA says “Live with it.”: If the FERS employees want credit for their sick leave upon retirement same as CSRS employees then the CSRS employees should be entitled to full Social Security benefits if they have the required quarters and not be subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision. There are pros and cons in each system. Live with it.”

A director from the USDA has this advice for federal employees: “Sick leave is the equivalent of ‘insurance’ – you hope you never have to use it but if you do, it’s there. Using it for “leave” just to use it so you do not lose it is unethical. Why must many feel so entitled to everything? Do many people feel our benefits are so little? Appreciate what you have and don’t take your health for granted. Keep in mind you may need those hours someday and you won’t have them. ”

A librarian from the Army in Washington, DC says that people either save for the future or they do not: “I view sick leave as an additional form of health insurance. You don’t use it unless you need it, and the less you use it, the more value it will have for you if the unexpected occurs. Reading the monthly messages sent out on our institutional email system announcing that yet another employee has exhausted all their leave and is in need of donated leave demonstrates to me that too many employees just throw away this valuable safety net. Maybe changing the rules regarding what happens to unused sick leave for FERS employees might help, but I can’t imagine it will make much difference. You either save for the future or you don’t. ”

A retired HR officer from the Department of Interior views the situation as being clear-cut: “All employees rather CSRS or FERS need to know that sick leave is a BENEFIT, not earned nor should be abused ”

An HR specialist from the Treasury Department in Washington says that federal employees have a good deal: “When each employee took the oath of office on their first day of work, they were also advised on leave and other benefits. They agreed/were informed then and now complain. Complain to those that can change the laws of FERS and use/save your annual leave. I don’t see any CSRS’ complaining that FERS employees get matching funds for TSP contributions…grow up – a Federal job is still a good deal.”

An accounting technican with DFAS in Omaha, NE sees the trade-offs between the two systems in this way: “Sick leave is not an entitlement. An employee receives more than enough annual leave to cover “mental health” days, and other times when they simply don’t want to come to work. I am a CSRS employee, but would be more than happy to trade carrying over my sick leave balance into retirement in exchange for getting those matching TSP dollars. FERS and CSRS are two different plans. Comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges.”

And a manager from the Treasury Department in New York City commented: “Rules are rules… whatever happened to integrity, everyone is lying about something these days!”

But not all readers fall into the category of thinking that taking sick leave at their discretion is a problem. Here is a sample of responses from these readers.

A window clerk from the Postal Service at Ft. Lee, NJ writes: “Some form of incentive should be given to FERS employees to save their sick leave without abusing it as I have seen many employees not sick call in sick and when asked why, their comments are why save it; it doesn’t count toward retirement like CSRS employees.”

A nurse with the VA in Salem, VA said: “My situation is different, our supervisors are told to encourge the use of sick leave, and discourage its “banking,” so that there will not be a future drain on resources for FERS employees (most of us save our sick leave for the birth of a child, future operations or elder health issues, etc.), and/or lower payouts for CERS employees. When we take a day of annual (leave), we are asked what for, and if it is for a dentist appointment, we are instructed to take sick leave. So, management will always try and gain an advantage, no matter what program you are in, and no matter what the policies actually are…. I’d rather let FERS employees take a mental health day than have to deal with some of them at work. Every person knows his own body best, and what it is capable of.”

A front line manager with the FAA has a strong opinion: “sick leave is earned and is our right to use as needed……even for rest or a day off.”

A special assistant with HUD in Washington, DC has mixed beliefs about the system: “Though I am not an abuser of sick leave, I am a little unsure on how I feel about employees being able to use sick leave for other reasons than just being sick and it not being ethical. Maybe the whole policy should be rewritten with a better description on what reasons you can use sick leave. I have just recently found out that sick leave is not creditable for FERS employees but I still think they should save it for a rainy day when they are truly sick. So many employees now utilize the voluntary annual leave program to tide them over that they just use their sick leave at any time with no thoughts for the future.”

A construction representative from the Corps of Engineers sees “ethics” as a flexible concept: “Many commentors and even the author lean towards using ethics and/or ethical ideals as a compass concerning how to use sick leave. An ethical compass being the guide, which compass should an employee use? Their own or perhaps one used by some of our elected leaders. I, personally, would be very concerned about using the compass of elected leadership. Perhaps, each federal employee has to decide what moral high ground he/she is willing to stumble away from. ”

An IT specialist from the Army in Miami, FL would take less leave if the system was changed: “This is one area that the FERS system short changed the work force. I don’t mind the other differences between CSRS and FERS however this is one area that the policy makers were not forward thinking as it was created. Now would be a great time while the system is in a change mode to bring it back, those that have used the sick leave every chance they got will feel the results in the end. Maybe it will make those of us that do use it rather than lose it rethink using it when we don’t really need to.”

A correctional officer with the Bureau of Prisons in Springfield, MO has a similar view: “Like many other agencies we have experienced a large turn over of staff the past several years, and staffing has slowly but steadily dropped in numbers (more going out the door then coming in). Unfortunately, the workload has not decreased. End result. Staff working more hours(mandatory overtime) causing morale issues and personnel to work under extreme fatigue. That is why so many look at sick leave more as “mental health days” and not so much as just playing hooky. I do believe the system for applying accrued sick leave upon retirement for CSRS employees should be the same for FERS employees. If FERS employees were to receive something for accrued sick leave a significant number of them would use it more sparingly. I know I would.”

Our thanks to all readers who took the time to respond to the survey and a special thanks to those who went in their written comments on these survey questions.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47