When travel pay falls short

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 The BCA said that the USDA relied on an out-of-date version of the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 However, even under this out-of-date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

New York.

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.

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