Social Security Administration employees in Lake Charles, Louisiana impacted by Hurricane Laura experienced a rollercoaster of leave policy changes in the wake of the storm, as the agency shifted from requiring employees to telework in evacuation hotels to allowing them to take administrative leave in a matter of days.
According to Joel Smith, local president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3184 chapter, which covers those storm-impacted employees, the situation ultimately had a “happy ending,” though employees were initially expected to report to work just hours after the storm had passed.
“Management previously conducted a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25 informing employees that they must work from their hotel rooms. After learning of this meeting and directive on Aug. 27 around 10 a.m., we reached out and confirmed with the area director’s office that ‘this is the rule,’” Smith said.
The union then received a call Aug. 28 from SSA’s Dallas regional commissioner.
“She was not aware of the application of this rule on Aug. 27. She ensured the union that she would personally look into this matter, and that her focus was both for the public and the employee safety. She looked into the matter and conducted a meeting with the management staff and labor relations. Management was able to find the ‘miscommunication,’” Smith said.
All impacted employees have since been placed on administrative leave.
“The affected employees have been granted weather and safety leave or administrative leave. The initial misunderstanding about weather and safety leave and how it applied to employees reporting to duty at their secondary alternate duty station, after following the local evacuation order, has been resolved,” an SSA spokesperson told Federal Times.
Federal regulations surrounding the use of weather and safety leave can be complicated by the intersection of telework and the need for leave.
According to an Office of Personnel Management fact sheet, “an employee who is participating in a telework program may generally not receive weather and safety leave, since the employee is not prevented from safely performing work.”
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many employees being approved for and placed in telework status, which would, in most cases, disqualify them from receiving weather and safety leave. But such employees could still find themselves forced to evacuate homes or deal with other safety concerns as a result of the hurricane.
Federal regulations stipulate that weather and safety leave should still be granted if the employee cannot work at “an approved telework site during severe weather or other emergency situations.”
“An agency may provide weather and safety leave to a telework-ready employee who is prevented from safely working at the telework site (such as by flooding or a roof collapse) as a result of the severe weather or other emergency event,” the guidance states.
“In this case, the home or other approved telework site is also impacted in such a way that work cannot be safely performed.”
Administrative leave is a more blanket term for authorizations that derive from “the inherent authority for heads of agencies to prescribe regulations for the government of their organizations,” according to OPM.
In instances of a major disaster or emergency declared by the president that impacts a substantial number of employees, the Office of Personnel Management may also establish an emergency leave transfer program, which allows non-impacted feds to donate some of their leave to those that have been severely impacted by the disaster.
President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for Louisiana Aug. 28, though OPM has not announced a leave transfer program at this time. The ELTP announcement for Hurricane Dorian, which traveled up the east coast of the U.S. in early September 2019, was announced approximately three weeks after the hurricane.
According to the SSA spokesperson, it is “too early to identify at this time if emergency leave transfer is needed.”