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Paid Leave

Annual and Sick Leave: General Rules

The federal government has made provisions for authorized absence from work, usually through earned leave, for most of its employees. These provisions, spelled out in chapter 63 of Title 5, U.S. Code, enable employees to take off for vacations or personal business, or when they are ill.

The leave law applies to most civilian employees of the government. Among those employees who are exempt from the leave law are congressional employees and those workers who do not have established tours of duty.

Except for emergencies, an employee’s use of annual leave generally must be authorized in advance, usually by the employee’s immediate supervisor.

Authorization for sick leave, because of its nature, is not usually obtained in advance, except for cases where employees know they will be unable to work because of medical, dental, or optical examinations or treatment, an operation, a period of convalescence, a lengthy illness, or something similar.

Employees absent from work because of illness may be required to submit administratively acceptable evidence that they were ill and unable to work for periods in excess of three workdays or for a lesser period when determined necessary. The agency may require a medical certificate.

Charges for annual and sick leave are normally in increments of one hour. However, an agency may on its own initiative, or on the basis of union negotiations, establish a policy for charging leave in lesser amounts.

Advanced Leave—At the discretion of the agency, a maximum of 30 days of sick leave may be advanced to an employee with a serious disability or ailment or for purposes related to the adoption of a child. A maximum of five days of sick leave may be advanced for family care or bereavement purposes.

Supervisors may grant advance annual leave consistent with agency policy. The amount of annual leave that may be advanced is limited to the amount of annual leave an employee would accrue in the remainder of the leave year. Employees do not have an entitlement to advance annual leave. In most cases, when an employee who is indebted for advance annual or sick leave separates from federal service, he or she is required to refund the amount of advance leave for which he or she is indebted.

RIF Situations—In reduction-in-force and other restructuring situations, an employee may use annual leave to establish initial eligibility for retirement or to continue health insurance coverage into retirement so that the employee may remain on the agency’s rolls after the effective date the employee would otherwise have been separated. Employees may not use advanced annual leave for these purposes, but only accrued or restored annual leave that has been credited to their account before the effective date of a RIF or relocation and annual leave earned while in a paid leave status after the effective date of the RIF or relocation. In a RIF situation, whatever retention standing an employee had when these rights are exercised remains in force until the RIF is completed. Once employees exercise these rights and they are retained under this authority, they may not use any other type of leave.

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Annual and Sick Leave: Accrual and Use

Annual leave is earned on the basis of years of federal service, including creditable military service. Full-time employees with 15 years or more service earn 26 days of annual leave a year; those with three but less than 15 years earn 20 days; and those with less than three years earn 13 days. Normally, part-time employees with 15 years or more service earn one hour of annual leave for each ten hours in a pay status, those with three but less than 15 years earn one hour for each 13 hours in pay status, and those with less than three years earn one hour for each 20 hours in pay status.

Full-time employees earn 13 days sick leave a year; part-time workers earn one hour of sick leave for each 20 hours in a pay status.

Employees are permitted to accumulate annual leave, but within certain limitations. The law permits most employees to accumulate 30 days of annual leave, although overseas employees are allowed to accumulate 45 days. Under this system, employees have to “use or lose” their excess leave by the end of the leave year with certain exceptions. Employees with an authorized accumulation in excess of 30 days who return to a position with a 30-day maximum accumulation limit are allowed to retain their excess annual leave until used. Special rules apply to SES members.

In determining annual leave accrual rate for military retirees, credit for military service is limited to service during a war, or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge is authorized, unless the retiree was retired on the basis of combat disability, or was employed on November 30, 1964, in a federal civilian position to which the annual and sick leave laws apply, and has not had a break in service of more than 30 days thereafter (5 USC 6303(a)).

Generally, when employees transfer between positions, accrued amounts of annual and sick leave are transferred to the new employing agency. When employees transfer to agencies with a different leave system, the leave normally is transferred, sometimes on an adjusted basis.

New employees may use their annual leave as they earn it during their first 90 days if their appointments are for 90 days or longer.

There is no limit on the amount of sick leave that can be accumulated. Employees who leave federal service are not entitled to lump-sum payments for unused sick leave. However, if workers are reemployed in the federal service after December 2, 1994, the amount of previously accumulated, unused sick leave is re-credited to their accounts (unless it was previously forfeited due to reemployment before Dec. 2, 1994). (Prior to 1994, the allowable period of separation was three years.)

Retirees under the Civil Service Retirement System are entitled to a credit for the amount of unused sick leave they’ve accumulated at the time of retirement for purposes of calculating their service credits used in computing retirement annuities. With one exception, this sick leave credit, which has been effective since October 20, 1969, does not apply to annuity calculations of employees covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System. The exception is that those who transferred to FERS with a CSRS annuity component may receive credit for the amount of unused sick leave they had at the date of transfer or the date of retirement, whichever is less.

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Restoration of Forfeited Annual Leave

Agencies may restore annual leave that was forfeited because it was in excess of the maximum leave ceilings if the leave was forfeited because of an administrative error, exigency of the public business, or sickness of the employee, under Section 6304 (d) of Title 5, U.S.C. An agency must restore the annual leave in a separate leave account.

The employing agency determines what constitutes an administrative error, that an exigency is of major importance and that excess annual leave cannot be used, or that the annual leave was forfeited because of a period of absence due to an employee's sickness or injury that occurred late in the leave year or was of such duration that the excess annual leave could not be rescheduled for use before the end of the leave year. (Note: Leave years do not run concurrent with calendar years. Typically a leave year ends a number of days into the succeeding calendar year.)

An agency typically may consider for restoration annual leave that was forfeited due to an exigency of the public business or sickness of the employee only if the annual leave was scheduled in writing before the start of the third biweekly pay period prior to the end of the leave year.

An employee must schedule and use restored annual leave not later than the end of the leave year ending two years after:

  • the date of restoration of the annual leave forfeited because of administrative error;
  • the date fixed by the head of the agency or designee as the date of termination of the exigency of the public business; or
  • the date the employee is determined to be recovered from illness or injury and able to return to duty.

Restored annual leave that is not used within the established time limits is forfeited with no further right to restoration. Administrative error may not serve as the basis to extend the time limit within which to use restored annual leave. This is so even if the agency fails to establish a separate leave account, fix the date for the expiration of the time limit, or properly advise the employee regarding the rules for using restored annual leave, absent agency regulations requiring otherwise.

On March 4, 2002, the Office of Personnel Management issued in the Federal Register regulations to provide that employees who forfeited excess annual leave because of their work to support the nation during the national emergency declared after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were deemed to have scheduled their excess annual leave in advance. Such employees were entitled to restoration of their annual leave under the rules.

A similar grant of authority made in 1999 that permitted use or lose annual leave to be restored to employees who were determined to be necessary to the Y2K conversion effort expired at the end of leave year 2002.

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Lump-Sum Payments at Separation or Retirement

Employees receive a lump-sum payment for accrued annual leave when they separate from federal service or may elect to receive a lump-sum payment when they enter on active duty with the armed forces. Under the rules stipulated in 5 U.S.C. 5551, the amount of this lump-sum payment must equal the pay employees would have received if they had remained employed until their annual leave ran out.

Generally, upon separation from federal employment, employees are entitled to payment for annual leave credited to their accounts, including the carry-over balance, the unused leave accrued during the year, and any unused restored leave. In the event of an employee’s death, survivors are entitled to payment for all annual leave credited to the employee at time of death. (Postal Service regulations provide for lump-sum payments for unused accumulated annual leave, but place certain restrictions upon payment for leave accrued during the year of separation.)

The types of pay included in a lump-sum payment are those that an employee would have received on a biweekly basis had he or she remained in federal service on annual leave, excluding allowances that are paid for the sole purpose of encouraging an employee to remain in government service. These are: basic pay; locality pay or other similar geographic adjustment; within-grade increase (if waiting period met on date of separation); across-the-board annual adjustments; administratively uncontrollable overtime pay, availability pay, and standby duty pay; night differential (for wage system employees only); regularly scheduled overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act for employees on uncommon tours of duty; supervisory differentials; non-foreign area cost-of-living allowances and post differentials; and foreign area post allowances. If a statutory pay adjustment becomes effective during the employee’s lump-sum leave period, the lump sum is adjusted to reflect the increased rate beginning on the effective date of the pay adjustment.

In calculating a lump-sum payment, an agency projects forward an employee’s annual leave for all the workdays the employee would have worked if he or she had remained in federal service. By law, holidays are counted as workdays in projecting the lump-sum leave period. If an employee is reemployed in the federal service prior to the expiration of the period of annual leave (i.e., the lump-sum leave period), he or she must refund the portion of the lump-sum payment that represents the period between the date of reemployment and the expiration of the lump-sum period. An agency re-credits to the employee’s leave account the amount of annual leave equal to the days or hours of work remaining between the date of reemployment and the expiration of the lump-sum leave period.

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SES Members: Annual Leave Rules

Members of the Senior Executive Service are subject to special annual leave rules and procedures, most of which became effective October 13, 1994, with enactment of Section 201 of the Government Management Reform Act of 1994 (GMRA), Public Law 103-356.

Ninety-day (720 hour) Limit on Leave Accumulation—GMRA established a new 90-day (720-hour) limit on the amount of annual leave both current and future Senior Executive Service (SES) members may carry over from one leave year to the next. Since the inception of the Senior Executive Service, SES members had been exempt from the normal annual leave accumulation ceilings of 30 days (240 hours) and 45 days (360 hours) applicable to most federal workers and to overseas employees contained in 5 U.S.C. 6304. The law did include a grandfather clause allowing current SES members with accumulated annual leave balances in excess of 90 days to retain their excess annual leave as their “personal leave ceiling” (see below).

SES Personal Leave Ceiling—If the amount of accrued leave and accumulated annual leave in an SES member’s leave account as of October 13, 1994 was in excess of 90 days, that amount became his or her personal leave ceiling. Amounts of annual leave that are advanced or restored to SES members are not included in their personal leave ceiling. Restored annual leave is placed in a separate leave account and must be used within a two-year period.

The personal leave ceiling is subject to reduction under the rules in 5 U.S.C. 6304(c). An SES member’s personal leave ceiling must be reduced by the number of hours used in excess of the number of hours earned during the previous year. Once the personal leave ceiling falls below 90 days (720 hours), it is eliminated and the SES member becomes subject to the 90-day (720-hour) limit.

“Use or Lose” Leave—If an SES member begins a new leave year with 720 or more hours of annual leave and earns more annual leave than used in that leave year, the excess leave hours will be forfeited at the beginning of the succeeding leave year. All SES members are subject to the “use or lose” rules for the forfeiture of excess annual leave under 5 CFR 630.302 for any leave earned and not used in a leave year that is in excess of the new 720-hour ceiling. Thus, SES members who have 1,000 hours as a personal leave ceiling at the start of a leave year and earn 100 hours more than they use in that year will lose those 100 hours, and their personal leave ceiling will remain at 1,000 hours at the beginning of the next leave year.

SES members are eligible for the temporary restoration (normally for two years) of annual leave forfeited because of exigencies of the public business or sickness, as described above.

Lump-sum Payments at Separation or Retirement—At the time of an SES member’s separation or retirement, all unused accrued annual leave is payable as a lump-sum at the rate of pay in effect. If an SES pay adjustment becomes effective during the employee’s lump-sum leave period, the lump-sum payment is adjusted to reflect the increased rate beginning on the effective date of the pay adjustment.

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Government workers are entitled to the following ten regular holidays each year:

  • New Year’s Day, January 1
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, 3rd Monday in January
  • Washington's Birthday, 3rd Monday in February
  • Memorial Day, last Monday in May
  • Independence Day, July 4
  • Labor Day, 1st Monday in September
  • Columbus Day, 2nd Monday in October
  • Veterans Day, November 11
  • Thanksgiving Day, 4th Thursday in November
  • Christmas Day, December 25

For a listing of this year's holidays, click here.

By law, this holiday is designated as "Washington's Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the U. S. C., which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Other institutions, such as state and local governments and private businesses, may use other names.

When Inauguration Day falls within the regularly scheduled tour of duty of an employee in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, it is observed as a holiday. There is no provision for an “in lieu of” day when an employee is not scheduled to work on Inauguration Day.

When a holiday falls on a non-workday outside a full-time employee’s 40-hour basic workweek or the employee’s basic work requirement for the week, the day to be treated as the employee’s holiday is the workday immediately preceding the non-workday. There are four exceptions:

When the non-workday is Sunday (or “in lieu” of Sunday), the next workday is the “in lieu of” holiday;
There is no provision in law for an “in lieu” of holiday if Inauguration Day falls on a non-workday; and
Under Public Law 104-201, an agency head may issue rules under which a different “in lieu of” holiday may be designated than would otherwise be required for full-time employees under compressed work schedules. These rules would be issued when the head of the agency determines that a different “in lieu of” holiday is necessary to prevent an adverse agency impact, as defined in 5 U.S.C. 6131(b) (This authority became effective on September 23, 1996.); and
Whenever Monday is designated as a holiday, the first regularly scheduled workday in the week is the holiday for a federal employee working overseas whose basic workweek includes Monday but is not the typical Monday through Friday work schedule found in the United States. This has the effect of providing three-day weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) for employees working overseas whose basic workweek is Sunday through Thursday. This authority became effective on October 17, 1998.

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Time Off as an Incentive

Federal employees are eligible for paid time off as an incentive. Agencies may grant employees time off from duty, without loss of pay or charge to leave, to recognize excellent employee performance.

Agencies may grant time-off awards alone or in combination with monetary or non-monetary awards to recognize the same kinds of employee contributions. Time-off awards are not intended to replace other awards.

Agencies may choose to exclude certain categories of employees from eligibility for time-off incentives (for example, SES members or intermittent employees). However, unless agencies make such an exclusion, all federal employees who meet the definition of employee under 5 U.S.C. 2105 are eligible for time-off awards. Similarly, agencies may choose to restrict the kinds of contributions that time-off awards will be used to recognize.

If a scale of benefits is used, agencies are to avoid creating an equivalency between time-off awards and cash awards. Under no circumstances may a time-off award be converted to a cash payment.

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Keep Track of Your Leave

You may use one of these printable calendars to keep track of the leave you use during 2009.

For More Information
You may obtain more information about paid and unpaid leave in the current edition of the Federal Employees Almanac.
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