Stop abuse of federal leave

This photo provided by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, taken from video, June 1, 2015, shows a bolt of lightning striking near the Capitol in Washington during that night's storm. (Senate Sergeant-at-Arms via AP)

There’s a high cost to putting federal employees accused of misdeeds on paid administrative leave while their cases are under consideration. The Government Accountability Office put it at $700 million for a recent three-year period, but added that the number was low because nearly 40 percent of federal agencies don’t keep adequate records of the practice.

The problem as described by the GAO affects at least 57,000 federal employees who were sent home for a month or longer, some for as long as a year or more. That is a shockingly large number of problem employees, and points to even deeper problems in federal personnel management.

The GAO estimates suggest that ending the use of administrative leave to suspend employees accused of infractions could save the government hundred of millions of dollars a year.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who started a Senate probe of administrative leave abuse, agrees. “Agencies need to do a better job of protecting the taxpayers from abusively long or inappropriate paid leave.”

Reacting to the pressure from Capitol Hill, the head of the Office of Personnel Management, Katherine Arlchuleta, last week told agency heads to stop it. Administrative leave should be limited to authorized purposes, not to put employees on the shelf, she said. If someone is accused of an infraction, that person should stay on the job until the matter is resolved.

It’s not the first time that the GAO and OPM have tried to address the problem. Its persistence is evidence that agency personnel managers often take the easy route when dealing with problem employees.

It will take better and more timely reporting of agency practices, heightened scrutiny and continued congressional pressure to eradicate the abusive use of administrative leave. Ms. Arlchuleta should stay on the case until the costs come down.