AWOL workers cost US billions

Coburn, Oklahoma’s junior senator and a Muskogee doctor, said the report, dubbed “Missing in Action: AWOL in the Federal Government,” “is an effort to identify the size of this problem in the hope that solutions can be found.”

“In a time when consumers face rising energy and food prices, the government needs to ensure efficient use of our own resources before turning to taxpayers and asking for more,” Coburn wrote in a cover letter introducing the findings of his study. “No one who pays taxes likes to see his or her government waste its resources. I believe the American taxpayer deserves better.”

The study, which analyzed the time employees at 18 federal agencies were absent without leave from 2001 through 2007, found workers logged 19.6 million hours, or 10,000 work years, during those seven years. The time unaccounted for, Coburn says, equals the hours that would be sucked from production if 316 employees skipped work every day during their 30-year careers.

Coburn describes the scope of the problem as “staggering,” and it is “growing worse over time.” In his executive summary, Coburn said employees who fail to show up at work without notice costs taxpayers an estimated $7 billion a year due to lost productivity and low worker morale.

While the figures plucked from Coburn’s study appear staggering, some federal employees and organizations that represent those workers criticized the report. One union representative alleges the report is “little more than a collection of numbers surrounded by innuendoes and loose extrapolations.”

According to the data included in two tables published in Coburn’s report, the number of hours recorded as absent without leave or permission averages 1.11 AWOL hours per employee annually during the seven-year period examined by Coburn and his staff.

In 2001, the first year examined, almost 2.5 million federal workers logged just more than 2.41 million AWOL hours, or about 0.97 hours each that year.

The 18 federal agencies and organizations identified in Coburn’s study reported the most AWOL hours in 2007, when 2.48 million employees logged nearly 3.47 million hours of unexcused absences, an average of 1.4 hours for each civilian worker in the federal workplace.

Michael Kelly, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ District 9 office in Oklahoma City, said federal employees “take great pride in our work.” Supervisors, Kelly said, grant leave without permission only for legitimate reasons.

“We, naturally, do take leave — annual leave, sick — and on rare occasions LWOP,” Kelly said “But LWOP is granted on a case-by-case basis, and usually approved for different reasons. Many requests are a result of medical reasons, while some could be for military purposes.”

Coburn brushed off criticisms of his report, saying it is aimed toward those managers who tolerate workers who fail to show up for work without notice or explanation. It does not, he said, target individual workers — especially those who show up regularly and do their jobs.

“The vast majority of our federal employees show up and do a good job — they are not the problem,” Coburn said during a telephone interview. “The problem is where management is not holding the employees (who fail to report without notice) accountable.”

Coburn said private-sector employers wouldn’t tolerate such behavior, and taxpayers should demand the same from public-sector managers and government workers. He identified the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs operations in Muskogee as an example of where good management is paying off.

“That is one of the most efficient parts of our government,” Coburn said of the VA’s Muskogee offices. “They are innovative, enthused and aggressive.”

But Coburn said that is not the case everywhere — the agency nationwide reported more AWOL hours than any other agency — and he hopes his oversight report will shed some light on the problem so that it can be addressed in a meaningful way.

“The key is if they (agency managers) know we are looking, they will do something to fix it,” Coburn said. “We need to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

Toward that end, Coburn recommended establishing a uniform definition for what constitutes an absence without leave, requiring annual absentee reports, conducting an impact assessment, and developing a set of penalties for those who habitually fail to report to work without notice.

Quick facts

• Since 2001, federal employees at 18 departments and agencies were absent without leave (AWOL) at least 19.6 million hours.

• Annual AWOL hours in 2007 were 45 percent higher than in 2001.
• Since 2001, nearly 300,000 federal employees have been AWOL for some period of time.
• Since 2001, the government has lost at least 9,410 years of work from AWOL employees.
• Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs were AWOL 19 times more often than employees at the Department of Defense.
• The Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Treasury — the two worst offenders — accounted for 61 percent of all AWOL hours between 2001 and 2007.
• Between 2001 and 2007, 13 of 18 agencies either saw an increase in annual AWOL totals or remained about the same level as before, despite overall decreases in the aggregate number of employees.

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