A conservative-leaning watchdog group has called for more oversight over telework after examining federal employees’ leave data, which suggests over a billion dollars of American taxpayer money may have been wasted due to a steep decline in sick days and paid time off taken during the recent telework expansion.
The Functional Government Initiative (FGI), a “new organization dedicated to improving the American public’s awareness about the officials, decisions, and priorities of their government,” conducted an examination, first reported by Breitbart News, of leave data from federal agencies and service centers that process payroll for multiple agencies, which shows that federal employees’ use of sick days and paid time off steeply declined during the telework expansion following the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Ultimately, employees taking time off but not using leave days have cost taxpayers over $1 billion in waste over the last few years. At the beginning of the pandemic, the report noted, “virtually all federal agencies moved to fulltime telework, attempting to limit the spread of [Chinese coronavirus].”
FGI’s investigation into federal employees’ reduced use of leave time, which they typically accrue during each pay period, came after a leaked internal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report showed that on any given day, 20 to 25 percent of the workforce, according to VPN login data, was failing to log on for work or even check their email.
However, since little data still exists, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, requested an investigation into how agencies monitor employees working remotely, which eventually led to FGI’s follow-up investigation.
Via the FGI’s investigation’s methodology:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, FGI requested aggregate leave totals for calendar years 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 from many federal agencies directly and from federal shared services centers that process payroll for multiple agencies. We requested totals for many different types of leave, but the analysis in this report focuses on the two main categories: annual leave and sick leave… We analyzed leave data for 24 federal agencies for this report. FGI received leave data in many different formats and styles, and we compiled to show trends in the use of annual and sick leave for each agency and for these agencies combined. [Emphasis added.]
The bottom line of the FGI investigation is that federal employees taking time off without leave has allegedly resulted in massive costs and wasteful spending for the American taxpayers. Annual leave declined by 15 percent from 2018 to 2020, and annual sick leave declined by 30 percent. The report added that “Every agency analyzed experienced a decline in sick leave use in 2021 compared to 2018, with use at several agencies down by more than 50%.”
The drop in annual leave used compared to 2018 equates to nearly $600 million in base pay collected, and the drop in sick leave equates to more than $845 million. The decline in both types of leave used since the onset of the pandemic is worth more than $1.4 billion.
FGI’s investigation concluded that “Vigorous oversight and analysis is necessary to determine the cause of such dramatic reductions in leave usage and to ensure that leave policies are not being abused” because “Without meaningful supervision, the likelihood of abuse of leave increases when employees engage in telework.” The conclusion added:
The data analyzed in this report is admittedly incomplete, as not every agency responded to our requests. However, trends are clearly evident in the data that should be concerning to the taxpaying public and those charged with oversight of federal agencies. Already, elected representatives charged with oversight have requested greater analysis of telework policies and their effects on attendance and productivity. These trends should also spur further research, data, and analysis to determine the root causes of these trends.
The Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Government Accountability Office could conduct a full and transparent audit of time and attendance during expanded telework. Officials responsible for oversight in Congress and agency Inspectors General could investigate the causes behind the dramatic changes in leave use and determine whether policy changes are required. The numbers and dollar amounts involved are stark and American taxpayers deserve assurance that they are not funding abuse by those in public service.
FGI also noted this report comes roughly one year after the Biden administration doubled down on expanded telework. Under the Biden administration, in November 2021, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management released guidance on telework policies, which stated that the federal government would be transitioning to a “new work environment” and that the ability to telework is here to stay.
“The most basic features of a functional government should include employees showing up to work, being paid for time while actually working, and taking leave as required,” FGI’s communications director Peter McGinnis told Breitbart News.
“The data FGI has gathered thus far suggests this may not be happening at some of the most impactful federal agencies. Even worse, the culprit may be COVID-era policies that many want to keep permanently and even expand. Our report should be a warning sign for all federal managers and those responsible for overseeing them. Leave usage should be carefully examined for the entire federal workforce before considering any permanent expansion of COVID-era telework policies,” McGinnis added.