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OPM offers up details on new emergency paid leave for federal employees

The Office of Personnel Management is out with more details on the new, highly-anticipated emergency paid leave program, which the Biden administration included in the president’s COVID-19 relief package.

The American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed into law in March, created a $570 million emergency paid leave fund. It allows federal employees to receive up to 600 hours, or 15 weeks, of paid leave for a variety of pandemic-related reasons.

Part-time employees are also eligible for emergency paid leave on a prorated basis depending on the number of hours they work.

In new guidance issued Thursday, OPM said agencies will grant emergency paid leave to federal employees on a conditional basis. Employees can access this new type of leave for the following reasons:

  • If they are subject to a federal, state or local quarantine order related to COVID-19,
  • If they’ve been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID concerns,
  • If they’re caring for someone who is subject to quarantine orders,
  • If they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19,
  • If they’re caring for children whose school or day care is closed or implementing a hybrid learning model,
  • If they’re caring for an older family member with health concerns,
  • If they’re receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or recovering from an illness or condition related to immunization, or,
  • Other qualifying reasons.

Federal employees will have to provide evidence and additional information to their agencies in order to confirm their eligibility, OPM said.

To administer this new kind of leave, agencies will go through a different process to approve and pay for these new, temporary benefits.

First, employees will request emergency paid leave with their agencies. Agencies will approve the emergency paid leave to employees on a conditional basis, if they meet the eligibility requirements.

Employees can use the leave immediately once they receive approval from their agencies, a senior OPM official said.

From there, agencies will request reimbursement from OPM, which will grant it to the agencies — as long as there’s enough money left in the fund.

Employees can request emergency paid leave until Sept. 30, 2021, unless the $570 million runs out before then.

Many federal employees are eligible to use this new type of emergency leave, including workers at the Postal Service, Postal Regulatory Commission, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and the D.C. courts.

OPM will administer the $570 million emergency paid leave fund on behalf of the vast majority of the federal government, including USPS.

Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration are also eligible for emergency paid leave. Those three agencies will each administer and monitor their own emergency paid leave funds, OPM said.

Some exceptions apply for emergency paid leave

This process for requesting and granting emergency paid leave is different than what most employees are likely accustomed to, because OPM and other agencies will disburse leave through a specific, limited duration fund. Agencies usually pay for annual or sick leave through their salaries and expenses fund.

Employees will receive the same pay that they would otherwise receive if they were on annual leave, with some exceptions. The value of the emergency paid leave can’t exceed $1,400 a week, or $2,800 a pay period.

In addition, leave paid to employees will reduce their total service for the purposes of calculating their federal retirement annuity, OPM said.

In its guidance, OPM said this new emergency paid leave went into effect when the American Rescue Plan became law, and some, but not all, agencies have made it available to employees. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, has already been granting emergency paid leave to employees on a conditional basis.

Moving forward, employees who have already requested time off but meet the eligibility requirements for this new program can ask their agencies to retroactively convert it to emergency paid leave.

OPM said it will stay in touch with agencies about how much money is left in the emergency paid leave fund. It’s setting up a dashboard to track the remaining funds and how they’re being used, OPM said.

“It’s going to be really important that agencies are timely in submitting requests for reimbursement,” the senior official said. “We’re relying on them to provide info about availability of the fund.”

OPM said it will process agency reimbursement requests on a first-come, first-serve basis based on the date and time that it receives them. If the fund runs out of cash, agencies will need to work with employees who requested and may have taken emergency paid leave to convert it to another form of leave.

The OPM official said the program shows government “leading by example,” as some private sector organizations often look to the public sector for guidance on offering leave and other benefits.

The emergency paid leave program ensures federal employees who experience COVID-19 symptoms or are under quarantine orders can stay home, and it recognizes the challenges some have experienced to balance child or elder care responsibilities with their work, the OPM official said.

It also gives employees time to get vaccinated, although OPM has already encouraged agencies to provide up to four hours of administrative leave per dose.

“This will maximize the availability of emergency paid leave for other circumstances that might affect an employee,” OPM said in a series of frequently-asked-questions on the new program.

This isn’t the first time Congress has stood up or added new leave flexibilities for federal employees since the pandemic began.

It allowed federal employees to carry over more annual leave from 2020 to 2021, and it added new sick benefits under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act last spring. Federal payroll providers and agencies, however, have often struggled to quickly make the technical changes needed to implement these benefits.

OPM said it has discussed the implementation effort, which is particularly extensive given the new program’s broad reach, with agencies.

“We have been working with the payroll providers from the very beginning,” the senior OPM official said. “We’ve had multiple meetings with them, and I believe they have solid plans in place and that they’re leveraging lessons from prior emergency leave situations.”

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