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Government must clarify position on compensated religious time off

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The federal government allows for time off for religious observances, but a lack of clear policies from the Office of Personnel Management keeps agencies from treating it properly, finds the Government Accountability Office.

Since 1978, federal agencies have been required to adjust employee work schedules to allow for participation in religious observances as long as doing so does not interfere with an agency's mission. A GAO report (.pdf) dated Oct. 12 says OPM has not gone far enough to make this time off clearly separate from traditional compensatory time despite the fact that the two serve different purposes and are subject to different rules.

The report just covers seven agencies' law enforcement officers and air and transportation safety and security personnel: Customs and Border Protection, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, and Transportation Security Administration.

These agencies all have established policies for employee time off during religious observances, and GAO finds a series of similarities in their practices around which employees are eligible, planning schedules used, and the implementation of time off. The policies allow for flexibility, says GAO, and for the most part agencies follow existing federal rules.

Agencies do differ in the caps they place on pay periods to earn and use the time off, how they repay time off taken in advance, what documents are required for a request, training for managers to approve of such requests, and disposition of unused time off for religious observances. The IRS, for example, has a 120-day cap while ICE has a six pay period cap for earning and using the time off.

While some of these differences reflect the needs of agencies, says the GAO, others represent a lack of clarity. The report finds that OPM regulations "do not specifically address the proper treatment" of any unused compensatory time off for religious observances.

For example, CBP policy states that unused compensatory time off for religious observances will be converted to regular compensatory time, "which according to an OPM official, is not authorized under statute or OPM's implementing regulations," writes the GAO.

OPM officials say they are updating the regulations to address the disposition of unused compensatory time off for religious observances, but currently have no timeframe for the completion of revised regulations.

The report recommends that OPM establish a timeframe and work with the CBP to make sure its actions around unused time off for religious observances is in compliance with existing law and OPM's regulations.

OPM and many of the agencies it works with agree with the findings and recommendations, and have plans to update and clarify their policies.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-96 (.pdf)

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