Federal Leave Policies: A Blessing or A Curse?

Recent articles on sick leave generated a substantial response from readers. Some asked what kinds of leave federal employees can use or for more information on when sick leave can be used. Some of the righteous indignation, ethical outrage, and management concern may be heightened or alleviated after reading more about federal employee leave policies.

The Federal government has been operating under employee-favorable leave policies for over ten years. These policies are generally much more generous than those in the private sector. Bereavement, family care and other kinds of leave coupled with an extensive right to demand the use of leave raise serious issues among managers and supervisors.

A key question is whether the congress or political executives have hampered accountability and productivity with this approach to leave entitlements when considered side by side with other programs such as work at home, flexible and alternative work schedules and the like. Many managers worry that training, mentoring, performance management, accountability and productivity may suffer under current rules.

In this series, we will take a look at exactly what leave entitlements employees have, the uses and abuses, and why Federal managers are concerned. First let’s look at the various programs that affect attendance and leave.

Leave Basics – Annual Leave

Annual leave is for employee’s discretionary use. Annual leave must be scheduled and approved in advance. Except for Senior Executive Service personnel who earn 8 hours per pay period (PP) regardless of years of service (since 2004), full-time Federal employees earn 4 hours per PP when hired, 6 hours per PP after 3 years (10 hours in the last PP of the year) and 8 hours per PP after 15 years.

Sick Leave

Sick leave may be used for medical, dental, or optical examination or treatment; incapacitation by physical or mental illness, injury, pregnancy, or childbirth.

Federal regulations also allow sick leave if exposure to a communicable disease would jeopardize the health of others by sick person’s presence on the job and for certain adoption-related activities. In addition, a limited amount of sick leave may be granted to provide care for a family member as the result of physical or mental illness, injury, pregnancy, childbirth, or medical, dental, or optical examination or treatment; make arrangements necessitated by the death of a family member or attend the funeral of a family member.

A full-time employee may use up to 40 hours (5 days) of sick leave each leave year for family care and bereavement purposes. Previously, an additional 64 hours (8 days) could be used as long as balance of at least 80 hours of sick leave was maintained in the person’s sick leave account. New regs were issued in August of 2006 eliminating the he requirement to maintain an 80 hour balance in order to use the 104 hours of sick leave for general family care adding an additional leave benefit to Federal employees. Other than full-time employee use is pro-rated. Subsequently encoded, the family care and bereavement policies started with a Clinton era executive order calling them Family Friendly programs.

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA)

Under FMLA, covered employees are entitled to a total of 12 administrative workweeks of unpaid leave (leave without pay or LWOP) during any 12-month period for:

  • The birth of a son or daughter and care of the newborn
  • The placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care
  • The care of the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious health condition
  • The employee’s serious health condition that makes him/her unable to perform the duties of the job

Upon return from FMLA leave, an employee must be returned to the same or equivalent position. While on FMLA leave, health benefits coverage continues. Employees on LWOP under the FMLA are responsible for paying the employee share of the health benefits premium. Also when employees return, they may choose to substitute annual leave for LWOP under the FMLA. Employees may also substitute sick leave in those situations in which the use of sick leave is permitted. The use of FMLA leave cannot result in the loss of any employment benefit that accrued prior to the start of an employee’s leave.

The employee may be required to provide advance leave notice and medical certification. Taking of leave may be denied if requirements are not met. The employee ordinarily must provide 30 days advance notice when the leave is “foreseeable.” An employer may require medical certification to support a request for leave because of a serious health condition, and may require second or third opinions (at the employer’s expense) and a fitness for duty report to return to work.

FMLA makes it unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of any right provided under FMLA or to discharge or discriminate against any person for opposing any practice made unlawful by FMLA or for involvement in any proceeding under or relating to FMLA.

Leave For Bone-Marrow Or Organ Donation

Federal employees are entitled to use 7 days of paid leave each calendar year in addition to annual or sick leave to serve as a bone-marrow or organ donor.

Leave Sharing

Employees with a medical emergency that have exhausted their own leave may avail themselves of the leave transfer program which allows other Federal employees to donate annual leave. Agencies also may establish a leave bank program. These bank programs allow members (those who contribute a specific amount) to apply for leave from the leave bank in the event of a medical emergency.

Flexible and Compressed Work Schedules

Flexitime (the common slang for a flexible work schedule) and AWS (common slang for a compressed work schedule) have been around for much longer than liberal leave policies but got their greatest expansion in the union friendly years of the Clinton administration.

Almost every Federal employee has the option of working a flexible or alternate work schedule. Flexitime relates to the hours to be worked in a given work day while AWS generally addresses the weekly tour of duty. For example, under a flexitime scheme, employees may vary their start and quit times often around fixed hours (called core hours) in the middle of the work day. Under AWS, employees may work four 10-hour days in a week (4-10s), eight 9-hour days and one 8-hour day over a pay period (called a 5-4-9 schedule), or other scheme. There is also something called maxiflex.

One agency’s program called magnified maxiflex (no kidding) is detailed on the web and requires employees to be at work from 10 am until 2 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The constraints are that the employee is limited to working 5 am to midnight Mondays and Fridays; 5 am to 10 am and 2 pm to midnight on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 5 am to 6 pm on Saturdays. Also, the employee can work credit hours (see below) if they choose.

Some interesting developments are becoming more common. These include gliding flexitours, a new type of flexible schedule that includes a basic work requirement of 8 hours in each day and 40 hours in each week. The employee may, however, select an arrival time, departure and lunch each day, and may change those times daily; and credit hours, similar to compensatory time, except that the request to work credit hours is at the initiation of the employee.


Telecommuting, otherwise known as work at home is increasingly popular, particularly in the Washington DC metro area. An interesting thing about telecommuting is that the program is championed primarily by congressmen in the Washington, DC suburbs but not outside the beltway regardless of party affiliation. In fact, perhaps the biggest proponent is a Virginia Republican.

Some believe this support arises from the fact that employees who work at home spend their lunch (and perhaps other) money in their home congressional districts rather than in D.C., Arlington and Alexandria where most Federal agencies have their headquarters. Now there’s a good human resource management reason to have a program. I have been told by unnamed very senior executives both political (both parties) and career that intense pressure has come their way to implement and then expand these programs.

Above are the basics. In the next part we will look at some of the issues with which federal managers must wrestle as a result of agency adoption of these programs.

Editor’s Note: New regulations were issued in August of 2006 eliminating the requirement to maintain an 80 hour balance in order to use the 104 hours of sick leave for general family care adding an additional leave benefit to Federal employees. This change is reflected in the article. Thanks to our vigilant readers for bringing this change to our attention.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.