Is Paid Administrative Leave Just a Vacation on the Taxpayer’s Dime?

The purpose of these leaves is simply to get offenders off the job when you don’t (yet) have legal cause to fire them.

A staycation on the Willamette River. (Michael Raines )

I keep reading about public employees under investigation for questionable behavior being placed on paid administrative leave. I’ve seen cases where individuals were on paid leave for multiple years. Isn’t all this just a paid vacation on the taxpayer’s dime? —Laura R.

You’re hardly the first to question paid administrative leave, Laura. When it comes out that some corrections officer, say, has secretly been forcing prisoners to act out scenes from Who’s the Boss? for his own amusement, you’d assume he’d be whisked off to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. All too often, however, the authorities basically just hand him a fat doob and the collected works of Tony Danza and tell him to go home and wait for his check. Where’s the justice?

Yokels like you and me assume a thing done to somebody because they just committed a crime must be a punishment. That shows how little we know about public-sector union contracts: Paid leave has nothing to do with punishing, rebuking or otherwise censuring the suspected wrongdoer. The purpose of these leaves is simply to get offenders off the job when you don’t (yet) have legal cause to fire them.

In most cases, the disciplinary process for public servants is a lengthy one. If you’ve got a patrol officer who’s repeatedly robbing Salvation Army bell-ringers at gunpoint, though, you kind of need to put a stop to that now. Paid leave does this in a way that doesn’t allow the accused to claim irreparable harm if the whole thing later turns out to be a big misunderstanding.

The other reason we send miscreants on paid leave is so they can’t interfere with their own investigation. It’s hard enough to get law enforcement types to talk about their co-workers’ misbehavior as it is; imagine what it would be like if the co-worker in question were sitting across the room staring fixedly at the witness and fondling his service weapon. (Or, less disturbingly, his gun.)

All that said, it’s hard not to feel like we’re paying a fortune to the bad guys just to go away. Last month, for example, the police chief and a police captain in Prineville agreed to resign after a lengthy investigation into their treatment of subordinates. Six months of paid leave for each plus the pair’s severance agreements cost that city $677,000. With cops like these, who needs robbers?

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