Tens of millions lost on federal workers who are AWOL, or doing union duties

As hundreds of federal employees face unpaid leave, a prominent Republican senator is demanding the government’s human resources office consider taking action against employees who aren’t doing their work on the government’s dime.

“Thousands of essential federal employees performing critical missions from food safety to national security are being threatened with furloughs, while others who are literally paid to do nothing or do not even show up for work are being retained,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote in a letter he sent to the chief of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Employees who are AWOL, a military term meaning “absent without official leave,” are costing the government millions in wasted hours, Coburn said.  A report he published in 2008 found that the government lost the equivalent of 9,410 years of work between 2001 and 2007 due to employees not showing up.  

“Agencies can avoid furloughing or laying off those performing the key functions of the agency by first eliminating to the greatest extent possible those who are not showing up for work, who are not performing official work, or are simply not working at all,” Coburn said. 

“It makes little sense to furlough air traffic controllers and border patrol agents while retaining employees who are AWOL, on standby, not performing official duties, or sitting idle awaiting security clearances.”

Representatives for the Office of Personnel Management could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.  But information on the agency’s website shows there are many times employees could take an unpaid leave with permission.

According to OPM’s website, Leave Without Pay, or LWOP, “is a temporary nonpay status and absence from duty that, in most cases, is granted at the employee’s request.  In most instances, granting LWOP is a matter of supervisory discretion and may be limited by agency internal policy.”

The website noted that employees are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a year due to medical concerns under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the same amount of time allowed to employees at private businesses.  And extended leaves of absence can have an effect on employee’s eligibility for certain federal benefits.

Coburn said he is also concerned about the impact union activity might be having on federal productivity, so called “official time.”

“Official time is time spent by Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. It allows unions to satisfy their duty of fair representation to members and non-members alike,” OPM reported.

In 2011, federal employees spent 3.4 million hours on union-related activities according to OPM data, the equivalent of $155.57 million worth of working hours.

And some employees are being paid to do nothing, Coburn said, with at least 906 people across the government being kept on “standby” in 2011.  While it makes sense for some agencies, such as the Defense Department, to keep employees on standby in case of emergencies, Coburn said he was less sure of others like the Agricultural Marketing Service.  

A report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service found these standby employees were paid a total of $13.1 million during 2010 and 2011, the senator said.

Some workers, meanwhile, aren’t working because they’re awaiting security clearance.  Coburn said delays in the security clearance process have stopped federal contractors from completing projects.

The senator wants an official accounting of just how many hours employees have been AWOL since 2008, how many hours were spent on “official time” in 2012 and how many hours were wasted by keeping employees on standby service over the past five years.  Then he wants an accounting of how much money that’s cost the federal government.

“Targeting these four areas where federal employees are being paid to do nothing could result in billions of dollars in annual savings, enough to maintain those employees performing the truly essential missions of the federal government,” Coburn said.

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