When travel pay falls short
- By Milt x_Zall
- Mar 26, 2000
An Agriculture Department employee who took a sick day while traveling on
business in Chicago found that he had to wage a legal battle to recoup his
per diem expenses for that day off.
The case in point involved USDA employee Ernest Santucci. On July 14,
1999, while Santucci was on temporary travel duty in Chicago, he began
having back spasms. This was a recurring condition that Santucci previously
had treated at home in New York.
On July 14, Santucci made an appointment to see a doctor in Chicago
on July 16 and submitted a request for sick leave for that day. He worked
on July 14 and 15; however, Santucci's back pain steadily worsened, and
after seeing the doctor and taking the prescribed medication on July 16,
he remained on sick leave all that day.
When Santucci returned to New York, the USDA disallowed his claim for
per diem expenses for July 16. The department said that because Santucci's
illness was not sudden — he requested the sick leave two days before he
actually took it — the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) did not permit the
payment of Santucci's per diem expenses for the day he was on sick leave.
As a result, Santucci asked the General Services Administration's Board
of Contract Appeals (BCA) to review the USDA' s decision (Washington, D.C.
20405 Jan. 27, 2000 GSBCA 15134-TRAV).
The BCA said that the FTR does permit the USDA to pay per diem for the
day Santucci was on sick leave. Section 301-30.4 of the FTR says that when
an illness or injury occurs on temporary travel duty, an agency may pay
per diem expenses — for a reasonable period of time (generally 14 calendar
days, but it can be longer) — for the location where the employee incurred
or was treated for an incapacitating illness or injury. Incapacitating illness,
according to the BCA, means "incapable or unfit" to work.
Clearly, Santucci's back spasms were incapacitating on the day he took
sick leave; he was incapable of working because he was receiving medical
treatment and because his condition was very painful.
So, according to the FTR, Santucci was eligible for per diem on that
day. The BCA said that the USDA relied on an out-of-date version of the
regulation when it decided Santucci's claim. However, even under this out-of-date
version, which required an element of suddenness, the BCA said Santucci
would have been entitled to per diem costs. His back condition was a recurrence
of a previous medical condition that was not present at the time he left
What's significant here is that an agency was trying to withhold per
diem payment from one of its employees who got sick on the job, when it
should have bent over backwards to find a way to pay him. It's little wonder
that feds are leaving their government jobs the first chance they get!
—Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus
column for Federal Computer Week.