Federal employees who cannot take time off because they have been deemed essential to their agency’s COVID-19 response will have an easier time making sure that their annual leave does not expire before they can use it.

Under the standard “use or lose leave” policies, federal workers are normally required to take annual leave by a certain time or before a certain number of hours are accrued, or else lose the opportunity to take that leave at all.

But during COVID and other national emergencies, that policy can become a problem, since some employees are deemed too essential to take that time off.

Under such situations, the standing practice has been for those employees to schedule the leave as if they plan to use it and have management cancel those leave hours so they can be transferred to a special restored leave account. But that process can be arduous and burdensome, especially when many employees are designated as essential.

Now, Office of Personnel Management acting Director Michael Rigas has issued a new memorandum to agency heads Aug. 27 informing them that employees will no longer have to pre-schedule their annual leave prior to the third pay period before the end of the year, so that the agency can then cancel and restore it.

“This requirement means that agencies and their employees would be faced with the administrative burden of scheduling, canceling and restoring such leave for each of these employees at a time when all available attention and energy should be focused on the national emergency,” the new OPM leave regulation states.

Instead, any leave that is forfeited at the end of the year due to a national emergency where the employee was deemed essential and not able to take leave would automatically be considered “scheduled in advance” and restored into a separate leave account for later employee use.

Any leave placed in that account would have to be used “by the end of the leave year ending 2 years after the termination date of the exigency of the public business.”

If, for example, the COVID-19 emergency designation ended in 2020, leave accrued in restored leave accounts under that designation would have to be used by the end of the 2022 year.

This regulation is unique in that, rather than just addressing the current national emergency, the policy would require agency leadership to use this leave structure for any future national emergency in which employees are deemed essential.

“The agency head (or designee) will be required to identify any employees covered under this annual leave restoration authority because they are affected by the exigency of the public business described in the OPM notification, due to their services being considered essential to the response to the national emergency, and they therefore cannot use their annual leave,” the guidance states.

“Once the agency head (or designee) has made such a determination, the agency head (or designee) must inform the designated employees or group of employees in writing of this determination and its application to them. It is critical that such employees know that their services have been designated as essential during the emergency because the employees need to know that the normal requirement to schedule annual leave in writing before the start of the third biweekly pay period prior to the end of the leave year, as required by §630.308, is not applicable during the designated time period.”

The new guidance does not mean that all employees can have their leave restored during a national emergency, as it only applies to those employees who have been told that they cannot take annual leave because their work is necessary to respond to that emergency.

Agency leadership would be required to continually monitor their response to the emergency to make sure that those employees designated as essential continue to be required for agency response.

Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.

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