Fedweek

A special leave fund for federal employees created by a pandemic relief law enacted early in the year is set to expire at the end of this month with nearly two-thirds of the money available not spent.

That law created a $570 million “emergency paid leave” fund from which agencies could draw to pay up to 600 hours—the equivalent of 15 work weeks—of additional leave for employees who cannot work because due to certain pandemic-related conditions. Primarily that involved being in quarantine or are ill with COVID; caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed or is conducting virtual learning; or caring for a family member incapable of self-care whose care provider is unavailable due to COVID. That leave is payable at the employee’s regular rate of pay, with a cap of $2,800 biweekly.

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The fund drew opposition at the time from some congressional Republicans who described it as giving federal employees an extra $21,000—a figure apparently arrived at by multiplying the $1,400 weekly maximum by the maximum 15 weeks. Backers of the fund responded that there would be no such windfall and that the fund would help employees in difficult situations.

OPM data show that as of last week, just above $206 million had been paid out of the fund, about 36 percent of the $570 million total, based on claims for just under 7.8 million hours. Postal Service employees accounted for most of both, some 6.7 million hours worth $171 million, followed by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, SSA, VA, IRS and Justice.

The program was little used at several larger departments including Education, Energy, HHS and Treasury—all of which showed claims for fewer than 1,000 hours. There is a lag time between when employees take such leave and when money is distributed from the fund, however.

The fund is authorized only through September 30. Given the recent upsurge in infections, there could be a move to extend it through an upcoming budget measure, although to date there has been no sign of such a move.

The conditions for the fund were largely the same as those under a special form of sick leave was created by one of the pandemic relief laws enacted early last year, except that last year’s law required that employees use up their regular sick leave before being eligible. That law provided for less than full salary, though, and apparently was little used in the federal workplace before it expired at the end of last year.

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