Tens of thousands of federal workers are being kept on paid leave for at least a month — and often for longer stretches that can reach a year or more — while they wait to be punished for misbehavior or cleared and allowed to return to work, records show.
During a three-year period that ended last fall, more than 57,000 employees were sent home for a month or longer. The tab for these workers exceeded $775 million in salary alone.
The extensive use of so-called administrative leave continues despite government personnel rules that limit paid leave for employees facing discipline to "rare circumstances" in which the employee is considered a threat. The long-standing rules were written in an effort to curb waste and deal quickly with workers accused of misconduct.
And the comptroller general, the top federal official responsible for auditing government finances and practices, has repeatedly ruled that federal workers should not be sidelined for long periods for any reason.
But a forthcoming report by the Government Accountability Office found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 more were kept off the job for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. The study represents the first time auditors have calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave.
They found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of government rules and laws, whistle-blowing, doubts about trustworthiness, and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some workers remain on paid leave as they challenge demotions and other punishments.
"It's not authorized by any law," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, referring to cases that drag on. "Bureaucrats are abusing it."
While the employees stayed home, they not only collected paychecks but accrued pension earnings, vacation and sick days, and moved up the federal pay scale.
The GAO report almost certainly understates the extent and cost of administrative leave because the figures examined by the auditors were incomplete.