Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been checking up on the attendance records of federal employees. And he doesn't like what he's found.
Civil servants have been away from their jobs without permission much too often in recent years, Coburn says in a new report.
Records from 17 federal agencies and the U.S. Postal Service show that workers were absent without leave for 19.6 million hours between 2001 and 2007, the study found.
That's the equivalent of
2.5 million missed days of work, or 316 employees skipping out for entire 30-year careers, says Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management.
"I have met many wonderful people who work for the federal government out of a sense of service to their country," Coburn wrote in a cover letter for the report, released Aug. 21. "Unfortunately, there is also a sizable and growing number of federal employees who undermine the agencies they serve by failing to show up to work."
But federal employees and their advocates, and a few agency officials, called the report misleading.
They said it does not put the numbers in context, omits other figures and unfairly disparages the professionalism of the federal workforce, which averaged about 2.5 million people, including postal employees, during the period Coburn studied.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents more than 150,000 federal workers, said in an e-mail: "The report is little more than a collection of numbers surrounded by innuendoes and loose extrapolations."
In a telephone interview, Coburn said he is bashing not the rank-and-file but rather bosses who do not address the issue.
In the Senate, Coburn is known as "Dr. No," a lawmaker who considers the government too big and wasteful and routinely votes against creating or expanding programs. He asked agencies for data on workers who were AWOL, or absent without leave, between 2001 and 2007.
That meant they were late or absent altogether, but not because of vacation, illness, jury duty or other approved leave.
As the report notes, not all agencies define AWOL the same way.
Some consider employees AWOL when they are 15 minutes late.
Others do so only for lengthier absences. Some agencies provided incomplete data - Transportation Security Administration figures were only for 2007, for instance. Employees are not supposed to be paid for time they are AWOL.
But the full story behind the AWOL numbers is more complicated, according to critics and agency officials.
Even public servants with the best of intentions are not always where they are supposed to be.
Coburn, for instance, has missed 58 of 1,283 votes, or 4.5 percent, during his nearly four years in the Senate, according to congressional records.
In six years in the House, he missed 232 of 3,741 votes, or 6.2 percent.