Federal Employees: Making the Most of Your Annual Leave

Effectively using your annual leave requires knowing what the rules are in the federal HR system. Advance planning is essential.

Annual Leave Rules Must be Followed

“Annual leave” is a term used by the federal government for a benefit that applies to every federal employee. It is a very valuable benefit. It gives you time away from work—with pay—for any purpose. If you want to take time off from your federal job to work around the house, travel to a foreign country, visit relatives in a neighboring state, or just sit home, drink beer, and watch old movies you can use your annual leave.

The trick to using your annual leave effectively is knowing the rules. Advance planning will go a long way in enjoying life away from the office or your job site without taking a pay cut.

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).

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.

Annual Leave Accrual Rates

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 TypeLess than 3 years of service*3 years but less than 15 years of service*15 or more years of service*
Full-time employees½ day (4 hours) for each pay period¾ day (6 hours) for each pay period, except 1¼ day (10 hours) in last pay period1 day (8 hours) for each pay period
Part-time employees1 hour for each 20 hours in a pay status1 hour for each 13 hours in a pay status1 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 OPM8 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)
Source: US Office of Personnel Management

* See Creditable Service for Leave Accrual. A change in accrual rate takes effect at the beginning of the pay period after the pay period an employee completes the required period of service.

** In computing leave accrual for uncommon tours of duty, the accrual rate for the last full pay period in a calendar year must be adjusted to ensure the correct amount of leave is accrued.

Use it Or Lose It

The federal government’s annual leave program is very generous. Some readers will argue that the “use it or lose it” portion of the program is “unfair”. My advice: Be grateful for what you have and don’t waste time complaining about this generous federal benefit. Just use common sense in deciding how you want to use 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. It will just disappear.

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 the remaining portion of this employee benefit.

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 these 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 (30 days) accumulation goes up to 360 hours (45 days). It goes up to 720 hours (90 days) 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 Still Choose to Ignore)

You may be thinking: “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 given to federal employees. It is based on personal observation from working in and around federal human resource offices for several decades.

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. Evaluate your own productivity and efficiency realistically before leaving your office for many weeks at a time.

Exceptions to the “Use or Lose” Rule

“Use or lose” annual leave is the amount of annual leave in excess of your annual leave ceiling. Any accrued annual leave in excess of the ceiling will be forfeited if not used by the final day of the leave year. 

There are exceptions to the “use it or lose it” rule. Your agency may restore the 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.

I have seen this happen in federal HR offices sometime in January or February of every year. A person finds out too late he 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. Others will not be successful. (Note: Your employing agency determines what constitutes an “administrative error”.)

It is easier and safer to plan your leave usage in advance. My personal opinion from watching how these cases unfold is: 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 to gain a few days of paid leave restored regardless of how good you think your case may be.

Dates You Should Know in 2023

Most readers will have 27 leave accrual periods for 2023. This means you will accrue annual leave for 27 pay periods for leave accrual purposes. You will still only have 26 pay days this year. This is important because the amount of leave you accrue in 2023 is determined by the number of pay periods; it is not determined by your number of paydays in a calendar year.

Here are some important dates in this process:

  • The 2023 leave year started on January 1, 2023.
  • The leave year ends on January 13, 2024.
  • December 02, 2023, is the last day to schedule use or lose annual leave.

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

The federal government is a large bureaucracy. Some agency payroll systems use a different pay period schedule. A federal employee should contact his or her agency to verify the beginning and ending dates of a particular leave year. 


Your annual leave is a valuable benefit. Taking the time to ensure you understand how to use it in the most effective way to meet your goals and lifestyle desires is worth the effort.

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