Effectively Planning How to Use Your Annual Leave

The trick to using your annual leave effectively is knowing what the rules are that apply to you. A little advance planning may go a long way in helping plan your use of annual leave and making sure you have enough leave to allow you to do some of the things you want to do away from the office or your job site without taking a cut in pay while you are not working.

“Annual leave” is a term used by the federal government for a benefit that applies in some way to every federal employee. It is a very valuable benefit. It gives you time away from work—with pay—for any purpose you choose. If you want to take time off from your federal job to work around the house, travel to a foreign land, visit relatives in a neighboring state, or just sit home, drink beer and watch old movies without thinking about work, the federal annual leave program gives you the time off as long as you follow the rules.

The trick to using your annual leave effectively is knowing the rules. A little advance planning will go a long way in helping plan your use of  leave and making sure you have enough  to allow you to do some of the things you want to do away from the office or your job site without taking a cut in pay.

There are numerous variations that can arise in calculating annual leave accumulation and using your annual leave (see the chart below for some of these variations). To avoid disappointment, and to save your time, we do not have resources necessary to do the research to answer personal questions about how the federal system in your agency may apply to your unique situation. You will need to have your questions on this topic answered by your servicing human resources (HR) office.

We invite any reader to post a comment or question on this topic in the comments section at the end of this article. Often, other people in the federal community  may have experience with your question or issue and may be able to help.

Annual Leave Accrual

Here is how the annual leave system works for most federal employees.

  • You accrue leave for each full biweekly pay period you are employed within the leave year
  • The amount of leave you accrue depends on your leave accrual rate.
  • Some employees will add four hours each pay period; some will accrue six hours and others will add eight hours each pay period.
  • Federal employees with at least three years but less than 15 years of federal service accrue 10 hours of annual leave in the last full biweekly pay period of the  leave year.

Accrual Rates for Federal Employees

As noted above, there are various ways the accrual of annual leave is counted for federal employees. This chart may be helpful in helping you figure out how much leave you will accumulate this year as you plan on whether or how to use your leave before the end of the leave year.

Employee Type Less than 3 years of service* 3 years but less than 15 years of service* 15 or more years of service*
Full-time employees ½ day (4 hours) for each pay period ¾ day (6 hours) for each pay period, except 1¼ day (10 hours) in last pay period 1 day (8 hours) for each pay period
Part-time employees 1 hour for each 20 hours in a pay status 1 hour for each 13 hours in a pay status 1 hour for each 10 hours in a pay status
Uncommon tours of duty (4 hours) times (average # of hours per biweekly pay period) divided by 80 = biweekly accrual rate. (6 hours) times (average # of hours per biweekly pay period) divided by 80 = biweekly accrual rate.** (8 hours) times (average # of hours per biweekly pay period) divided by 80 = biweekly accrual rate.
SES, Senior Level (SL), and Scientific or Professional (ST) positions, and employees in equivalent pay systems, as determined by OPM 8 hours for each pay period, regardless of years of service. (See Extension of Higher Annual Leave Accrual Rate to SES and SL/ST Equivalent Pay Systems fact sheet)

Use it Or Lose It

Be careful in tracking your annual leave.  If you do not use any annual leave in excess of the maximum of 240 hours (for most federal employees) during the leave year, you are likely to lose it. This is often referred to in federal offices as “use or lose” leave. If you do not use your “excess”  leave before the end of the leave year, you may find you have just given away a portion of this employee benefit that you have earned.

The maximum number of hours that you can accumulate during the course of a year and carry over for use in the following year is 240 hours for most federal employees. In other words, if you do not use some of your annual leave during the current year, you can add up to 240 hours for use in the following leave year. While some employees complain about this limitation, this is a lot of paid leave (about six weeks). If you are planning a long vacation or need time away from work, you can add this 240 hours to the amount of leave you will accumulate in the next year as part of your planning process.

For federal employees who work overseas, the 240 hour maximum accumulation goes up to 360 hours. It goes up to 720 hours for those in the Senior Executive Service and certain scientific and professional employees. If you are not sure which category applies to you, be sure to check with your human resources office rather than making an unwarranted assumption.

Here is what will happen if you have annual leave that falls into the “use or lose” category: You will forfeit any accrued annual leave in excess of the maximum allowed by law if you do not use it by the final day of the leave year.

Free Advice (That Some Will Choose to Ignore Despite the Consequences)

You may be thinking (and some readers have essentially posted this sentiment on the FedSmith site in the past):  “Annual leave is a benefit given to me as a federal employee. I have earned it and how and when I use it is nobody’s business. I am going to take the leave I have earned when I want and use as much as I want. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.”

Here is advice not covered in most written advice to federal employees. It is based on personal observation from working in and around federal HR offices for a number of years. If you think this advice is unreasonable, that is your option. Ignore it at your  own risk.

If your office can do without your presence for six weeks or more at one time while you are on annual leave, someone might start to wonder about  your value to the organization. A person who is gone for an  extended time may find that others are doing the work you used to do. When it comes time for awarding a promotion, award or some other benefit, the person who has been away for an extended time will not always be given the same consideration as others who have been there working. In some cases, employees who return after an extended, approved absence find that a new person is doing some of the work they were doing but the work is being done faster, better or more efficiently. This is not good for your career as a federal employee. Evaluate your own productivity and efficiency realistically before leaving your office for many weeks at a time.

Exceptions to “Use or Lose” Rule

There are exceptions to the “use it or lose it” rule. Your agency may restore your annual leave that you have forfeited if your inability to use the leave was because of an “exigency of the public business”.  You may also get the  leave restored if you have scheduled your use of the annual leave in writing before the start of the third biweekly pay period prior to the end of the leave year. In plain English, this means you have to have the leave scheduled and approved in writing before December 1, 2012.

I have seen this happen in numerous federal HR offices sometime in January or February of every year. A person finds out too late they had “use or lose” leave. That person goes to his supervisor or the human resources office and wants the leave restored. There may be many reasons given by the employee as to why it should be restored. Some of the reasons may be valid and may be accepted. Many are not valid and will not be accepted.

More free advice: Do not put yourself in the position of being at the mercy of the person in your human resources office to restore your annual leave. You may think the person is unreasonable in not restoring your leave. Perhaps the person is being unreasonable. Perhaps you do not have a reason that is consistent with the requirements the HR office is supposed to enforce. The bottom line: You may not get the leave restored.

It is easier and safer to plan your leave usage in advance. My personal opinion from watching how these cases unfold:  Fighting the federal bureaucracy after you have received a decision you do not like is generally not a good use of your time , energy and peace of mind to try gain a few days of paid leave restored regardless of how good you think your case may be.

Dates You Should Know in 2012

On the topic of annual leave, here are a couple of facts you should know.

Most of our readers will have 27 leave accrual periods for 2012 as of January 12, 2013. This means you will accrue annual leave for 27 pay periods for leave accrual purposes. Note that you will still only have 26 pay days in 2012. This is important because the amount of leave you accrue in 2012 is determined by the number of pay periods; it is not determined by your number of pay days in a calendar year.

This also means that you will have 26 times for any regular payroll deductions  coming out of your paycheck.


Your annual leave is a valuable benefit. Taking the time to make sure you understand how to use it the most effectively to meet your goals and lifestyle is worth the effort. We hope this quick summary of some of the points you need to understand will make it easier for you to take advantage of this resource.

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