2000 workers deserve vacation from the leave laws

Another year 2000 problem is looming, and this one will require Congress and the
president to fix it.

Across the federal government, thousands of computer specialists—managers and code
jockeys alike—are toiling to correct computer code. After long hours and forgone
vacations, these troops are in for a rude awakening. Only 240 hours of their annual leave
will carry over into 2000.

Agencies are furiously unearthing, cataloging, modifying and testing applications that
have been in service for decades. Hundreds of thousands of hours are being poured into the
effort. Many agencies have issued edicts that no 2000-related workers may take leave
during the second half of this year. The rest of us will be under less formal pressure to
pass up vacations to make sure the updated applications are ready in time.

Nearly all the one-time Cobol programmers and other computer people drafted into year
2000 service are long-term employees earning the maximum eight hours of leave a pay

Because annual leave won’t be an option for these troops, most will have earned
well over the 240-hour limit they are otherwise permitted to carry over into the next
year. For many of these uniquely skilled people, year 2000 work last year already pushed
their leave balances to the maximum. By the end of this year, they will see three or four
weeks of accrued annual leave evaporate with the new pay year.

Why? Rules, baby. The rules allow carryover of leave only if a leave request during the
current year is denied. But agency personnel will be reluctant to apply for leave in the
face of agency pronouncements that it won’t be granted. Yet unless your request
is denied, you do not have the basis for a claim for carryover, and your hours over 240
are forfeited without recourse.

Imagine your reaction when told you will lose hundreds of hours of vacation time. This
is your reward after a hard year or more of labor to prevent the collapse of agency

You suffer all those long hours away from home and loved ones, and harbor anticipation
of time off to compensate for all the work devoted to the onset of the date change, only
to have Uncle Sam stick his finger in your eye.

If your boss challenges the request as unpatriotic or against agency policy, calmly
note that he or she may refuse the request, letting you carryover excess hours.

The 240-hour limit is legislated. Congress could eliminate the confusion by lifting it
temporarily—or even permanently. In fact, the law was changed to impose the limit
because, as I recall, dedicated employees were banking their leave instead of using it,
presenting agencies with years-long balances to pay out when hoarders retired.

Perhaps the president could lift this ceiling in response to the year 2000 imperative,
but that’s something for the lawyers and personnel policy types to mull over.

Even lifting the restrictive rules may not be enough. Many information technology
employees have trouble staying within the 240-hour limit even under normal circumstances.
Reinvention and downsizing have thinned the ranks; many agencies simply do not have the
depth in their IT staffs to let workers use the leave they already earn.

A temporary lifting of the carryover limit would only delay the problem from 1999 to
2000. What we really need are options like the ability to cash in use-or-lose leave.
Another option: Let employees trade annual leave for IT and management training.

Such training would help with the demand for IT services once the year 2000 crisis has
passed. Internal and external customers are already incredulous at the complexity of
making a seemingly simple date code change. Their patience for starting new applications
will be thin, and IT professionals, still panting from the 2000 battle, will be mobilized
to meet new, mission-critical, high-pressure assignments. Thus, the respite will be short.

There’s an old Yiddish saying: No good deed goes unpunished. It would be unwise to
punish those who are working the hardest. Once 2000 has arrived, the same people will be
called upon to revamp and integrate the aging systems they just finished propping up.
We’ll need their experience and cooperation, not their hostility.  

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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