VALENTINRUSSANOV / ISTOCK.COM
Congress created a $570 million fund for the initiative, and once that runs out, workers will have to take personal leave or leave without pay.
Federal agencies can now begin approving their employees’ requests for special leave related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which allows workers to take up to 15 weeks off to care for themselves or others.
Congress authorized the special leave program as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in March, creating a $570 million fund for the initiative. Once that pot of money is depleted, the initiative will end and any employee who took time off under its provisions would have to take personal leave or leave without pay instead. Only employees who have taken or will take time off between March 11, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2021 are eligible.
The Office of Personnel Management detailed in guidance released Thursday the conditions for meeting the law’s eight “qualifying circumstances” that give employees access to the extended time off. Those facing isolation orders from a government entity or a self-quarantine recommendation from a doctor could take the leave while away from work, provided they self-certify to their agency that they are following legitimate guidance. Generic suggestions for individuals of a certain age or with specific conditions to remain at home that apply to federal employees would qualify them for the leave.
Employees who get sick themselves, have symptoms of COVID-19 and are seeking a diagnosis or were exposed to the virus can tap into the leave. What is likely to be the largest qualifying pool, however, is one for any parent whose child is at least part time in a virtual learning environment or whose child care is unavailable due to the pandemic. The leave would also be available to anyone caring for an individual who is 55 or older, has a mental or physical disability, or is subject to quarantine orders.
Like many Americans across the country, federal employees have spent more than a year juggling their work with caring for family members home due to school closures or other pandemic-related causes. While some agencies authorized administrative leave for staff in such circumstances, the practice was never widespread and has been largely phased out. Even as school districts across the country are increasingly reopening, many parents have maintained at least the option to keep their kids in a hybrid in-person/virtual setting or in a full-time remote environment. Any of those parents would qualify for the leave, so long as they certify it is preventing them from working.
OPM has not yet gauged how popular it expects the program to be, with an official saying Thursday it is waiting for initial agency submissions to arrive to measure its usage. The human resources agency acknowledged the leave program will in part serve to recognize not just the ongoing difficulties federal workers are experiencing, but also the circumstances under which they have worked for the last year.
The law “recognizes the challenges that federal employees have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic with caring for children, elderly family members, and family members with disabilities—when their normal school, childcare, and caregiving options are not available because of COVID,” OPM said in a fact sheet on its guidance.
The OPM official said the law demonstrates that the “safety of the federal workforce is a key priority for this administration,” and would help set an example for all employers to allow their workers to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Agencies will not have discretion to deny the leave to any employee who qualifies, as OPM interpreted it as a legal entitlement. They will submit all usage of the special emergency leave to OPM for reimbursement each pay period, which will then approve it on a first come, first served basis. OPM will track the fund and provide updates to agencies as the $570 million pool is depleted, but employees will have to agree in writing to use their own leave or take leave without pay if the funds run dry before the agency can be reimbursed. Employees on the leave will receive their full salaries up to $1,400 per week when the funding pool is available.
The U.S. Postal Service has already begun logging employees’ requests for the leave, but the OPM official was unsure if other agencies had done so. Federal workers can submit requests retroactive to March 11 and ask for personal leave they took to instead be converted to the emergency leave alternative. Employees will generally not have to provide detailed documentation such as a doctor’s note to receive the leave, but instead offer an explanation of their circumstance and, for example, the name of the doctor whose order they are following or the school that is closed.
While the Biden administration has already instructed agencies to provide administrative leave to all federal employees taking time out of their work day to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, workers can also use the emergency leave for that purpose and if they need additional time off to recover from symptoms afterward.