Vacation time given back to furloughed workers Earlier decision reversed after employees complain

January 20, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of federal workers got a belated Christmas gift this week -- extra vacation -- as a result of the three-week partial government shutdown.

Reacting to an outcry from employees, the Clinton administration reversed an earlier decision and announced that employees who had planned to be on vacation at the time of the shutdown but were instead furloughed -- and paid, retroactively -- will lose no vacation time.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Personnel Management had no estimate of how many of the 280,000 workers who were off during the shutdown would be affected by the decision.

Late December is a popular vacation period. For federal employees, it is the last chance to use leftover vacation. They may carry no more than 30 days of vacation time into the next year, and they must take or lose unused time by early January.

At the Social Security Administration alone, officials estimate that 20,000 employees -- nearly a third of the work force -- had planned to take such "use or lose" vacation in late December, said Tom Margenau, a spokesman.

Most were required to work instead. During the shutdown, 56,000 of the agency's 66,000 employees were on the job. Most of the 10,000 furloughed workers were in the Baltimore area.

Nationwide, about 780,000 people work for agencies that were affected by the shutdown because their temporary spending authority had expired Dec. 15. But about 500,000 of them were required to work anyway, while the rest were furloughed until Jan. 6, when Congress ended the shutdown.

There is no provision for leave during a government shutdown. And indeed, some employees who were on sick leave complained that they were called back.

Many others who had planned vacations were told to come to work because their jobs were considered critical -- and because the rules barred vacations.

On Dec. 21, Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, told employees who were on the job that those with previously approved vacation plans "may be furloughed" so they could fulfill those plans.

When the shutdown ended, the Office of Personnel Management announced that those who had been required to work would have their vacation time restored if their plans had been approved by Nov. 26. But furloughed employees would lose vacation time.

That prompted complaints from many who had planned vacations but ended up furloughed instead. Some said they had been forced to cancel their vacation plans because of the uncertainties of being paid.

"They were in an unpaid holding status -- not a situation where they could travel," said Mary Ann Maloney, an OPM spokeswoman.

Mr. Margenau, the Social Security spokesman, is one of the employees who benefited from this week's decision. He had planned to take two weeks "use or lose" vacation beginning Dec. 16 -- the first day of the shutdown. Instead, he was placed in furlough status -- and was off for three weeks.

"I got paid vacation at taxpayer expense when all along I had planned to be on leave anyway," he said. He said he "had no problem" with the decision that would have cost him that leave time.

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