During severe weather (e.g., hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, snow, ice) or other emergencies (e.g., fires, earthquakes, power outages), an agency has the authority to grant employees administrative leave (excused absence) consistent with OPM guidance.With the recent outbreak of severe weather, we received many inquiries from federal employees concerning Excused Absence (also called “Authorized Absence” and even “Administrative Leave” by some agencies). (Note, Excused Absence should not be confused with granting of “liberal leave” or approved leave.) There are many widely held misperceptions concerning the purpose and application of Excused Absence. One of the most glaring misperceptions we encounter is that employees believe they have an entitlement to such leave under certain circumstances, most notably, when they are unable to report to work due to weather conditions for example. This is simply untrue. Another misplaced perception is the belief everyone must be treated equally if an agency grants Excused Absence to any employees. Again, simply stated, this is untrue. Yet another misperception is that an employee on scheduled approved leave is entitled to not be charged leave for the days in which other employees were granted Excused Absence. Again, entirely untrue.
Though this article will focus on Excused / Authorized Absence during adverse weather conditions, there are a number of variants on the theme. These include, but are not limited to,
- 59 minute rule
- Authorized Absence from duty during an investigation
- Authorized or Excused Absence related to training
- Authorized or Excused Absence related to PCS relocation
- Authorized or Excused Absence related to sabbaticals or conferences
Excused Absence for Inclement Weather
Generally, The primary and central criteria to the undisputed granting of AA (excused absence) during inclement weather is whether 1) the facility or government function was closed by an authorized official and 2) whether the employee(s) was scheduled to work (not already in a leave status). In the instance of operational closure, it has been our seasoned observation employees are provided Excused Absence with no charge to leave in nearly all instances. However, such simple circumstances are not always the case. For example, what if an agency reduces its operations to essential personnel only? What happens to those stuck in traffic or unable to commute due to hazardous weather conditions?
There are a number of authorities governing the application of Excused Absence in a set of given circumstances. Typically, provisions of a Master Agreement (union contract ) will apply as well as agency regulations (local and national), Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidelines, statutory law, and code of federal regulations. For the purpose of this discussion, we will generally discuss what typical regulations and Master Agreements may look like as well as OPM guidance, which already reflects statutory law and federal regulations. As always, we recommend you seek specific guidance concerning agency regulations and your local or national Master Agreement, but maintain that OPM guidance is the key primary source authority in this discussion.
In general, the authority to grant “Excused Absence” or any derivation thereof, most notably the “59 minute rule,” typically remains at the election and or discretion of your agency and such discretion is normally mirrored in your Master Agreement. For example, the AFGE/NVAC Master Agreement (2011) at Article 35 Sec. 11 C. covers issues of “Authorized Absence.” It states, in pertinent part,
If the Department decides to close all or part of the facility during periods the facility would otherwise be open, the Department will notify employees whether liberal leave or authorized absence will be authorized. Employees who are prevented from reporting to work due to the closure of all or part of a facility should be granted authorized absence in accordance with OPM guidance.
Notice the words in bold font; specifically the words: “or” and “should.” These are critical in any application concerning the granting of Excused Absence (called “Authorized Absence” in this instance). While many union officials (including those representing this Master Agreement) adamantly believe this article requires the agency to grant Authorized Absence, it is quite obvious it does not.
The Office of Personnel Management provides similar instructions and authority in its guidance entitled, Handbook on Pay and Leave Benefits for Federal Employees Affected by Severe Weather Conditions or Other Emergency Situations (2008). In its handbook, OPM provides, in pertinent part,
Each department or agency has discretion to excuse employees from duty without loss of pay or charge to leave. In addition, excused absence may be granted to employees who are prevented from reporting for work or faced with a personal emergency because of a severe weather condition or other emergency situation and its aftermath and who can be spared from their usual responsibilities. Agencies have discretionary authority to grant excused absence and do not need to obtain prior approval from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Agencies have discretionary authority to grant excused absence to employees who are prevented from returning to work due to unique circumstances, such as travel delays, surrounding the events of a severe weather condition or other emergency situation. However, employees on preapproved leave should continue to be charged leave until the date they were scheduled to return to duty.
Once again, notice the words in bold font. It is abundantly clear that while OPM provides agencies authority to grant Excused Absence without charge to leave, it does not otherwise obligate an agency to grant such absences without charge to leave, even if you are stopped from reporting to work despite heroic efforts during the largest Snow Storm in history and even if the agency closes operations.
Typically, if an agency elects not to grant Excused Absence based on inclement weather, that agency will approve leave “liberally.” That means, it would approve unscheduled annual leave requests in instances in which it might otherwise deny the leave request, based on weather conditions in this example. If the affected employee does not have sufficient annual leave balances, the agency would typically default to Leave Without Pay (LWOP) at its own discretion, and without obligation to do so.
Know Your Specifics
As we previously stated, it is important for you to determine the specifics of your situation. Agencies promulgate various forms of regulations with at least minor differences and Master Agreements can vary significantly. Additionally, established local practices and supplemental agreements or Memorandums of Understanding can be influential in any analysis.
IMPORTANT UPDATE as of April 13, 2021: The American Rescue Plan Act provides significant emergency federal employee leave for specific COVID-19 related reasons. It also addresses eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits for federal employees specifically diagnosed with COVID-19. The emergency leave entitlement began on March 11, 2021, and expires on Sept. 30, 2021 unless extended. The paid leave aspect is being referred to as Emergency Paid Leave (EPL) and is subject to budgetary constraints. Contact your local Human Resources for more information.
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