Employees ‘AWOL’ for thousands of hours each year

By Robin Bravender | 01/05/2015 12:57 PM EST

U.S. EPA employees have racked up tens of thousands of hours in unexcused absences in recent years as they’ve gone "AWOL" from their work stations.

Agency employees were absent without leave for more than 53,000 work hours between 2008 and 2013 — an average of about 9,000 hours per year, according to data released by EPA in response to a Senate inquiry. That includes agency staffers who were found to be "absent from duty without having the absence approved," the agency said.

Craig Hooks, the former top human resources official at EPA, sent the numbers in April to now-retired Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Last January, Coburn wrote to EPA chief Gina McCarthy, asking for details about her agency’s AWOL staffers.

"I write to learn more about the work force employed by the EPA," Coburn wrote. "Specifically, I am interested in the number of employees each year who have hours where they are absent without leave, or ‘AWOL.’" Coburn’s letter and EPA’s response were released to Greenwire last month under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Coburn and other lawmakers have become increasingly interested in EPA’s personnel management after a 2013 scandal exposed that a senior EPA air official had been lying for years about doing secret work for the CIA while getting paid to stay home. EPA’s critics have called for beefed-up scrutiny of employee supervision and timekeeping practices at the agency that’s already been a lightning rod for attacks based on the Obama administration’s environmental rules.

The number of EPA employees with AWOL hours ranged from 62 in 2013 to 103 in 2011, the agency said. That represents a small fraction of the agency’s total staff; fewer than 1 percent of the agency’s workers were found to be AWOL each year from 2008 to 2013.

The annual number of AWOL hours at the agency was as high as 13,193 in 2012 and as low as 4,209 in 2013. EPA’s staffing had dropped significantly in 2013 to 16,051 after hovering around 17,500 in previous years.

Employees who are found to be AWOL can face stiff penalties, ranging from written reprimands and suspensions to possibly losing their jobs.

"The AWOL policy includes that upon returning to duty, the employee must explain to the immediate supervisor at the earliest practicable time, the cause of the absence and the reason for his/her failure to obtain approval to be absent," Hooks wrote in response to Coburn’s request.

For their first offense, workers who are determined to be AWOL — which includes leaving their work stations without permission — are subject to penalties ranging from a written reprimand to a five-day suspension. A second offense carries a penalty of suspension from one to 14 days, and a third offense can trigger penalties ranging from a five-day suspension to removal, Hooks said.

Those penalties typically don’t apply to staffers who are tardy for 1.2 hours or less, and penalties depend on the length and frequency of employee absences, Hooks said. If workers are absent for more than five consecutive work days, employees may be removed at any time, he wrote.

Employees who are tardy without excuse, which includes arriving late to work or returning late from lunch or business outings, face penalties ranging from oral admonishment for their first offense to possible five-day suspensions or removal for a fourth offense.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.