Emergency leave policies warrant legislative attention

Photo by Todd Wiseman

Over the past several weeks many legislators, myself included, have expressed deep concerns about reports on the use of emergency leave at our state agencies — and rightly so. Public employees are paid with hard-earned tax dollars, and we should expect those dollars to lead to actual work while an employee is on the public clock.

Unfortunately, we are learning that in some cases employees left state employment but continued to receive state pay and benefits under the banner of emergency leave status. At our Senate Finance Committee hearing May 17, I asked representatives from the Comptroller's Office and the Legislative Budget Board to brief members about our emergency leave policy.

According to Government Code Section 661.902, a state employee is entitled to emergency leave without a deduction in salary because of a death in the employee's family. The deaths of the employee's spouse, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, child and stepchild are all considered acceptable reasons for emergency leave under the statute.

I wholeheartedly support the idea of accommodating our state employees who are facing such difficulties. However, the statute also contains an exception for the administrative head of an agency to grant emergency leave for other reasons, as long as the employee has shown "good cause." This exception is overly broad and open to misuse.

There have been multiple reports of questionable practices across state government, but the full extent to which emergency leave is being used is unclear. Last week, the State Auditor's Office announced it is initiating a survey of state agencies to gather more data about this issue.

In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, I am also reviewing ways to tighten up the law. Agencies should not be using emergency leave intended for grieving employees as a means of severance pay for departing employees, and we will make that clear.

I was pleased to learn that since our hearing, the governor and comptroller have directed state agencies to refrain from using emergency leave for purposes of severance for departing employees. I also welcome the opportunity to work with our counterparts in the House, which directed a committee to study the issue in more depth.

Emergency leave should be reserved for true emergencies. Together we will make sure that the state supports our employees facing emergency situations, that our agencies have the guidance they need and that taxpayer dollars are protected.

Jane Nelson

State senator, R-Flower Mound