GAO ruling pushes sick feds to retire

In a recent ruling concerning the government's Voluntary Leave Transfer Program (VLTP) the General Accounting Office said agencies should initiate disability retirement procedures if an employee has been on leave with an illness for more than a year and is not expected to return to his job. VLTP was established years ago to allow federal employees to donate leave to co-workers who lack sufficient leave time to cope with a medical condition or some other emergency.

Although VLTP is a meritorious program it is not a substitute for disability retirement according to GAO.

Therefore if an employee on extended leave for medical reasons is not expected to return to work the employing agency should begin disability retirement proceedings. Upon retirement the employee should return the remaining unused transferred leave to those who donated it. The unused leave cannot be credited toward the retiree's time in service.

The GAO opinion came in response to a request from the inspector general of the Transporation Department. The request concerned an employee on the IG's staff who suffered a serious illness and had been on sick and annual leave for more than a year but was not expected to recover sufficiently to return to duty. The employee applied for participation in the leave-transfer program based on a medical certification from his physician. Fellow workers donated more than 10 000 hours of annual leave to the employee. That amount of leave would have permitted the employee a criminal investigator to remain on the agency's roles for almost five years and then qualify for a full retirement benefit.

By allowing the employee to remain on the roles with leave status for this extended period of time the IG's office would have been unable to fill his position possibly creating a hardship for its operation.

GAO's decision was based in part on the legislative history of Public Law 100-566 which established VLTP. The program was not meant to be a substitute for disability retirement and agencies should encourage employees to apply for disability retirement if circumstances warrant it.

I have no problem with the GAO decision if the affected employee agrees with it but I do not believe he should be forced to retire on a disability.

In fact I do not understand why GAO had to be consulted in the first place. Agencies can apply for disability retirement on behalf of an employee whenever the circumstances warrant it.

In the type of situation reviewed by GAO agencies may encounter the problem of an employee unwilling to file for a disability retirement. In the case at DOT the employee would have no reason to file for a disability retirement because that would reduce his current and future income substantially. By filing for a disability retirement annuity based on his current years of service the employee would not receive credit for the five years of donated leave.

The situation is exacerbated by a requirement that medical evidence of an employee's inability to perform his job should be submitted to the Office of Personnel Management before it will approve an employee's disability annuity application. If an employee doesn't want to apply for disability retirement and his agency applies on his behalf it may not be that easy to obtain the necessary medical evidence.

As you can see the GAO decision may have opened up a can of worms. That doesn't surprise me. GAO often fails to fully think through the consequences of its decisions and recommendations. If this particular employee chooses not to file for a disability retirement I don't think he should be forced to.

Because the DOT employee did not file for a disability retirement annuity I infer that he did not want to. Perhaps he thought he could return to work. Or perhaps he concluded that he was better off financially by not filing.

If the employee had enough leave of his own that was not donated but earned the question of whether or not his agency should apply for a disability annuity on his behalf would not have come up. But if you think about it what is the difference to the agency between earned and donated leave?

Regardless of the source of his leave an employee who is ill and not expected to resume his former duties and who cannot find another suitable position at the agency should qualify for disability retirement.

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week.

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