By Reg Jones

Leave without pay is just what the words say – you’re away from your job and you’re not getting paid. An agency may grant LWOP for a variety of reasons, including educational or training opportunities or while waiting for a decision of either worker’s compensation or disability retirement. While an agency may approve your request for LWOP when you have used up your annual or sick leave, it can still do so if you still have leave hours on the books.

With certain exceptions, the decision to approve LWOP rests entirely in the agency’s hands. However, there are certain situations where the granting of leave LWOP is mandatory. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, you are entitled to up to a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to take care of certain family and medical needs. If you are called to active duty, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act entitles you to be on LWOP. And Executive Order 5396 entitles disabled veterans to take LWOP for needed medical treatment.

The effect of taking LWOP varies depending on the length of time you are in a nonpay status. If you are a career employee, the first 30 calendar days of each nonpay period is considered to be creditable service. If you are a probationary employee, you get credit for 22 workdays.

While any time spent in a nonpay status is considered to be creditable service for meeting time-in-grade requirements for promotion, the crediting rules are different when it comes to within-grade increases. For GS employees, only two workweeks in a nonpay status is creditable toward the waiting period for steps 2, 3 and 4; four workweeks for advancement to steps 5, 6 and 7; and six workweeks to steps 8, 9 and 10. For wage system employees, it’s one workweek for advancement to step 2, three workweeks to step 3, and four workweeks to steps 4 and 5.

For most employees, a total of six months in a nonpay status in any calendar year is considered to be creditable service for both retirement and reduction-in-force purposes. And that coverage is provided at no cost to you. In other words, you won’t have to make a deposit to the retirement fund to get that credit. However, any period of LWOP that exceeds six months in a calendar year isn’t creditable, and you can’t make a deposit to get credit for it.

If you are an employee who is called to active duty, the rules are different. You’d go on LWOP-US, which has no time limit. All the time you are away from your job is considered to be creditable service, but only if you make a deposit for that time. The deposit equals a percentage of your basic military pay, not including allowances or differentials.

If you are enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, your enrollment will continue for a maximum of 365 days. The nonpay status may be continuous or broken by periods of less than four consecutive months. The government will continue to make its contributions to pay for your premiums and will advance money from your future earnings to cover your portion of the costs. You’ll have the option of paying that portion on a pay-as-you-go basis or having your agency deduct it from you pay when you return to work. With one exception, any coverage you have under the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance program will be treated the same way. The difference is that you won’t be required to pay for that coverage.

As a full-time employee, if you accumulate 80 hours of LWOP during a pay period, you won’t earn any annual of sick leave for that pay period. You will earn annual and sick leave during the following pay periods until you once more accumulate 80 hours of LWOP. Then your ability to earn sick or annual leave will be cut off again. If you are a part-time employee, you will be under the same rules; however, because you are a part-time worker, the amount of leave you earn will be proportionately less.

Nonpay status time is fully creditable for the 12-month continuous employment period to qualify for severance pay.  However, for purposes of computing your actual severance payment, any time in a nonpay status that isn’t creditable for leave accrual must be excluded.

Because contributions to the Thrift Saving Plan can only be made from your salary, if you are in a nonpay status, you can’t contribute to your TSP account nor, if you are age 50 or older, can you make any “catch up” contributions. Although you won’t be able to take out a new loan, payments for any existing loan you may have can be suspended for up to one year or, if you were called to active duty, until you are back on the job. In either case, interest on your loan will continue to accumulate.

Finally, if you are in a nonpay status because you are either on active duty or on workers’ compensation, that period of time will count as a continuation of service when you return to work. In other words, there won’t be any break in your employment record.