Reg Jones Expert's View

Recently I’ve been getting questions about leave-without-pay, aka LWOP. When can I take it and what effect will it have on my benefits? Let’s start with the first part of that question.

Whether you’ll be granted LWOP is usually up to your agency. Among the reasons it might honor your request is if it supports you desire to take advantage of an educational or training opportunity but not enough to pay for it. It might also do so if you were waiting for a decision on either worker’s compensation or disability retirement. While it would normally do that if you have used up your annual or sick leave, it can also do it if you still have leave hours on the books.

On the other hand, there are times when it must grant LWOP. For example, 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. Also, if you are called to active duty, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act entitles you to LWOP. And Executive Order 5396 entitles disabled veterans to take LWOP for needed medical treatment.

The effect of taking LWOP depends 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 for within-grade increases. For GS employees, only two work weeks in a nonpay status is creditable toward the waiting period for steps 2, 3 and 4; four work weeks for advancement to steps 5, 6 and 7; and six work weeks to steps 8, 9 and 10. For wage system employees, it’s one workweek for advancement to step 2, 3 work weeks to step 3, and four work weeks to steps 4 and 5.

As a rule, if you take no more than six months of LWOP in any calendar year, you’ll get credit for that time for both retirement and reduction-in-force purposes. And you won’t have to make a deposit to the retirement fund to get that credit. On the other hand, any period of LWOP that exceeds six months in a calendar year isn’t creditable, and, unfortunately, you can’t make a deposit to get credit for it. That’s not the case if you are called to active duty. Instead of going on LWOP, you’d go on LWOP-US. And all the time you are away from your job would be creditable service, but only if you make a deposit for that time. The deposit equals a percentage of your basic military pay, excluding 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 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 unless you prefer to cover them on a pay-as-you-go basis. 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 at all.

If you are a full-time employee who accumulates 80 hours of LWOP during a pay period, you won’t earn any annual of sick leave for that pay period. However, 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, the same rules will apply; however, because you are a part-time worker, the amount of leave you earn will be proportionately less.

Any time spent on LWOP is fully creditable for the 12-month continuous employment period needed 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 will be excluded.

Because contributions to the Thrift Saving Plan can only be made from your salary, if you are on LWOP, you won’t be able to contribute to your TSP account nor, if you are age 50 or older, will you be able to make any “catch up” contributions. If you have an existing loan, payments 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. Note: While on LWOP you won’t be able to take out a new loan.

Finally, if you are on LWOP either because you are on active duty or on workers’ compensation, that period of time will be treated as if you didn’t have any break in your employment record. In other words, your employment record will appear to be seamless.