Recently a reader who is approaching retirement sent the following question to the Federal Times website: “What will get me the most bang for the buck, start using a lot of sick leave or going straight for the annuity?”
I answered: “This is mother speaking: ‘Son, it’s attitudes like yours that give federal employees a bad name.’ Sick leave may only be used for approved purposes. Using it just because you want to is a violation of law.”
Tough words, but true. Sick leave is a benefit that may only be used when appropriate.
I think one reason employees consider inappropriate ways to use sick leave is that it accumulates. While being credited with four hours of sick leave each and every pay period doesn’t sound like much, if you never used any in a 30-year career, you’d end up with 3,120 hours of it.
Time for a history lesson. At one time, you could only use sick leave when you were sick and, as a result, were unable to perform your duties because of physical or mental illness, injury, pregnancy or childbirth. Other than that, unused sick leave had no value. It was lost when you retired.
With so few opportunities to use sick leave, the temptation to burn it off at the end of a career was extreme and its misuse was rampant, with supervisors turning a blind eye to those who used as many hours as they could. So bad did this misuse become that in 1969, Congress enacted Public Law 91-93 to permit employees to receive service credit for unused sick leave in the computation of their Civil Service Retirement System annuities.
When the Federal Employees Retirement System was established in 1987, it put those employees in the same position that CSRS employees were in before the law was changed. As they approached retirement, FERS employees started burning up their sick leave with the same enthusiasm that their forbearers had shown. Once again Congress had to step in and allow retirement credit for unused sick leave.
The FERS credit is being phased in: Employees retiring between now and Dec. 31, 2013, receive half credit; those retiring thereafter receive full credit.
In addition to retirement credit for unused sick leave, a wide variety of additional, legitimate uses of sick leave are now allowed. Personal illness or incapacity are still the main reasons employees take sick leave, and the limitations on its use are few. Your agency may require you to provide a medical certificate or other acceptable evidence that you are, in fact, ill. And, in some cases, your agency may require such evidence for absence of fewer than three days.
However, you can now use up to 104 hours of sick leave to provide care for a family member who is incapacitated or needs medical, dental or optical examination or treatment. Sick leave may also be used to make arrangements required by the death of a family member or to attend that family member’s funeral.
In addition, sick leave can be used to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Most employees may use up to 12 workweeks of sick leave each year for this purpose. However, if you used any portion of your 104 hours of sick leave for general family care or bereavement, that amount would have to be subtracted from the 12-week entitlement. Likewise, if you use the 12 workweeks of sick leave to care for a family member, you could not use the 104 hours in the same leave year for general family care or bereavement.
Even with the restrictions I’ve cited, there are a lot of legitimate uses for sick leave. And one of them isn’t a choice you can make about whether to illegitimately burn off your sick leave or, when you are eligible to retire, legitimately have the hours added to your period of employment and used in your annuity computation. Burning the time off isn’t an option.
Time for one last word from mother: “Use your benefits appropriately. Don’t try to game them, either for personal convenience or profit. There are too many people, including members of Congress, who think federal employee pay and benefits are excessive. Don’t give them another reason to point the finger at you.”