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Subject:  Re: Emergency Fund Date:  10/23/2013  10:55 PM
Author:  ThyPeace Number:  307393 of 312185


You asked a number of questions about the federal leave system and how the furlough could affect leave. Summarizing, the question seems to be, “How can anyone possibly be unable to use their leave when there are 10 weeks left in the year?”

I could give facts and figures, and will start with a couple to give you context. But then I’m going to tell you a story. Because I think it’s easier to get a feel for things with a story. Facts first. Jeanwa posted a good link that discusses leave accrual in general. For the story I’m going to tell, the employees have worked for the government for more than 15 years and accrue annual leave at 8 hours per pay period, or 26 days per year – essentially 5 weeks of leave.

Federal employees are allowed to carry over 240 hours of leave each year. Many Federal employees prefer to carry that full amount as a buffer for unexpected emergencies. All of those who are affected by the current situation have already built up that buffer, meaning that any leave they earn this year, they must either use all of it, or lose any they haven’t used, or have the government “restore” the leave.

Leave restoral occurs when an employee had scheduled leave, but for reasons associated with critical operations in that area, was denied the leave by his or her supervisor. Although employees have the right to take their leave, supervisors also have a responsibility to ensure that all work is covered. So leave can (and is) denied when a critical skill set is needed, when there are simply not enough people around if one more person takes the day off, or when there are emergencies.

However, restored leave cannot be held for more than the following year. After that year, it is forfeited.

Now, let’s go back to last year and start my story. The summer of 2012 was hot. Really hot. In our area, it was 105 and very high humidity for nearly a week. Then there was a Derecho that caused extensive power outages -- in the middle of that extreme heat. The fallout from the Derecho in my workplace was dramatic. I can’t go into the details without telling you where I work and what I do, which I don’t particularly want to do. But let’s call that event Big Awful Darn Day #1. BAD Day #1 for short.

In my work, a BAD Day is a day when people and animals’ lives are at risk, or where there is significant risk of major damage to government property. BAD Day #1 was, according to my most experienced colleagues, the worst day they had seen in 30 or more years of work. Unbelievably, no one (except one of our employees, who needed a good set of stitches) got hurt and there was no major property damage. I am still astonished at that, and at the flat heroism and brilliant technical maneuvering that pulled it off.

So let’s talk about my colleague. Let’s call her MC (for my colleague). She is the technical genius behind getting us through BAD Day #1. She is also the heart and soul of our organization, and lives and breathes the place. On BAD Day #1, she figured out the problem, declared the emergency, made 200+ people appear at work on a Sunday morning, and proceeded to mitigate, delay, trick, and fight our systems to a standstill instead of a runaway train while others (my boss and 30 or so other colleagues) finally figured out and resolved the major technical problem that had caused all the trouble. She’s amazing.

Our boss relies on her very heavily. They have a straightforward deal. One or the other of them will ALWAYS be within one hour of work. At all times. Every day. Because of the potential for BAD Days.

The aftermath of BAD Day #1 was both immediate and long term. A lot of our employees worked two or three straight days then (as in, 48 to 72 straight hours) – and continued to work extremely intense schedules for the remainder of the year. MC had a straightforward reaction to BAD Day #1. From that moment and until it finally got cooler in the fall, she didn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time. She tried, you understand. But couldn’t. She wasn’t the only one who had a reaction like that. But this is her story, so I’ll focus on her. She didn’t dare take a day off while it was still hot. Lots of our folks didn’t.

Back to the question of leave usage. MC had taken a few days off here and there early in 2012, before BAD Day #1, but not enough to use up all her time. She scheduled several weeks of leave in November and December of 2012.

But… other things happened. Suddenly, MC’s leave is no longer viable –- and gets denied at the end of 2012. Now, the good thing is that the government will restore leave in situations like that, and all of the “use or lose” leave that she had scheduled was restored. And she started building the response team to allow her to take time off as she realized that just her and our boss were not enough people for the scope and frequency of problems we were facing.

But that wasn’t in place yet. So she came into 2013 with even more than the usual 240 hours carried over.

2013 has been somewhat less awful than 2012. Somewhat. In the spring, we had what I’ll call BAD Day #2. Here again, I can’t go into details, but a technical glitch, overlaps of work in two different places, and poor design combined into an emergency so severe that for a while the fire department had to pull its people out for a while because it was too hot for even them to work. (And no, it wasn’t a fire. At least, not exactly.) And you know, the fire department leaves after the immediate life-threatening emergency is over. Our guys don’t.

In that situation, which was only less bad than the first one in that it was much more localized, MC came in at her usual time at 5:30 Tuesday morning. BAD Day #2 started at 4pm. She was on site until Thursday morning. They declared a partial victory when they stabilized the systems at that point, created a watch, and sent everyone else home for 24 hours. Friday morning, they started again and stayed for another 24 hours, and got the situation to a place where no one was worried about an immediate failure. They kept the watch – some guys standing 12 on and 12 off, others 24 on and 24 off – for at least another week. Here, too, I am amazed and proud to work with the people who kept anyone or any animal from getting hurt, though there were significant losses in other ways.

MC? She was our incident commander for that entire week. (If you’re familiar with emergency responses, you know what that is. If not, well, it’s… the person who Makes It Happen. Whatever IT is.) In addition to everything else, she also faced the people who had losses, apologized to them (even though she had saved the day, not ruined it), comforted them, and helped them understand exactly what had happened and how our folks had kept it from getting any worse. Again, weeks of major aftermath.

We were still dealing with all the other things that go on in the regular whirl of life. It was summer again – and the technical issues that caused BAD Day #1 had not yet been addressed. So we worried. She worried. Everyone worried. No one slept well. And those prep things she did to get others in place to respond helped. The incidents, if not the BAD days, are more evenly spread out. It was a fight to get there, but that’s a story for another day.

Our boss finally decided to retire – after 40+ years of government service – and started taking a lot of time off to plan his next phase of life. Remember that deal that neither of them would ever be more than an hour away? Yeah. That. So she had again planned to take time off in the cooler part of the fall, starting in October.

And our executive decided to reorganize the entire area we work in – 800+ people, of which my boss was in charge of well over 500. (Yes, that’s screwy. That’s one of the reasons for the reorganization.)

You may know that there are currently no cash awards allowed anywhere in the government? For the heroism that literally kept our agency alive, we were able to give our folks two things. A very sincere “thank you,” and a couple of days off. (2)

So our boss retired. His retirement party was October 1. We had to change things so that the excepted personnel could come after their workdays were over – no leave means no leave, not even for your boss’s retirement party. Unsurprisingly, MC was selected to be his replacement. She’ll be great at it, and I am looking forward to working with her.

And then the furlough happened. MC is excepted personnel, along with several hundred of our colleagues. (That whole life and property thing is why we exist, after all.) She’s sitting at work, all leave cancelled, dealing with Yet Another BAD Day. This one doesn’t deserve a number, as it was not nearly as spectacular as the others. BAD days happen, in my work, about once every three months. Which is why several hundred of our colleagues were there in the first place – so that they could prevent as much as they could, and deal with the fallout for those that they can’t prevent.(1)

Now it’s the middle of October. MC has a new organization to run. Not the same one we had a year ago – the reorganization I mentioned was effective October 1, too. New positions for quite a few people, realignments, changes in responsibilities, delayering of the organization. And breaking a log jam that had prevented dealing with the technical issues that contributed to BAD Day #1. All good. But time-consuming, stressful, and on top of keeping this crazy train of a workplace going.

She flat cannot be gone right now. Not enough, anyway, to use up the time that she should be using up. And likely not even to use up the leave she will have to forfeit from the previous year. Is she partly responsible for this? Sure. Not everyone would be so dedicated to her job, and not everyone would take on the responsibilities she shoulders every day. But she is, and she does, and she’ll end up forfeiting leave for it.

Also, I realize that this may seem like an extreme example. But I will tell you that she is not the only one, not the only example. My work is full of people like her, who may not have all her talents and strengths, but absolutely have the level of dedication that she does. My colleagues love their jobs, care deeply for each other and our Agency’s mission, and are some of the most remarkable people I have ever had the honor to work with. I wish I could show each and every one of you around our workplace and show you what we do. I think you would be happy with how we spend your taxpayer dollars.

ThyPeace, wishes she could tell the full story of those days. And wishes she had the resources to start an oral history project at work.

(1)You might ask why we can’t prevent everything. I wish we could and we try hard to get there. But we can’t always do it. The best analogy I can give is to think of your house. No matter how hard you try to make it weather-proof, someday a wind may come along that’s stronger than all your preparations. Maybe that storm will tear up a few shingles. Maybe it’ll rip off the whole side of the roof. Or maybe it will lift the house from its foundations and fling it into the side of the house next door in a screaming fury. My colleagues deal with those winds – and also with the ramifications of vast increases in technology, complexity, and risk in the modern world.

(2) We cannot even buy someone who has worked for 24 straight hours a sandwich and a soda. I find that profoundly wrong. I am determined to change it. And though I have found a way to get a guy a nap before he has to go back to work, I still can’t buy him a sandwich. Incredibly frustrating.
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