Being put on admin leave is an incredibly jarring, isolating, or even traumatic experience for the worker experiencing it. It starts with receiving a grave-but-vague accusatory letter. The sense of dread is heightened by the letter’s conclusion, which not only advises you of a right to union representation, but stresses the agency’s policy prohibiting retaliation, discussing the matter with anyone (even though you typically can’t tell what the actual matter-at-hand is), and instructing you to refrain from contact with any agency employees or clients. You are required to turn in your agency ID and keys pending the outcome of the investigation, and you are notified that the agency has reported the allegation to Adult Protective Services, which will also be investigating.
If you are put on administrative leave, you will have many questions. Below are answers to some of the most common, as well as a list of tips on handling the experience.
Q&A about paid administrative leave
Is this a suspension?
Only in the technical sense—that is, it is not a disciplinary suspension. It is simply the agency implementing its default CYA practices. During your leave, you will continue to be paid and accrue CTO and other benefits as normal.
What have I actually been accused of, and who has accused me?
Paid administrative leave is most often employed when HR receives an allegation of inappropriate conduct or serious misconduct relating to the well-being of a client/patient. Usually, the worker in who is placed on leave has a job with vulnerable adults. The report may arise from a client, someone in the client’s life, a supervisor, another worker, etc.
Typically, accusations are phrased in an incredibly and intentionally vague manner. For instance, “inappropriate contact,” “inappropriate conduct,” “unethical behavior,” etc. It may be a week or two—sometimes longer—before you hear anything more specific.
How serious is this?
HR does not vet allegations. In fact, even when a bizarre delusion forms the basis of an allegation that literally could not have been committed in the first place, their course of action will be the same: paid administrative leave, an APS report, and an investigation.
Can they actually tell me not to talk to other employees or coworkers during my leave (or clients, for that matter)?
The answer to this is a little nuanced, but it starts with knowing that what an employer is lawfully allowed to do and what it actually does aren’t necessarily the same thing.
With that out of the way: the only reason you could not talk to other employees during your leave (and the HR investigation that occurs over its course) would be for the purpose of witness tampering, destroying evidence, or otherwise willfully interfering with the investigation. Needless to say, it’s hard to interfere with an investigation when you don’t actually know what is being investigated.
HR has a right to conduct investigations free from interference. Their right to instruct you against speaking to other employees during paid admin leave is only valid on a case-by-case basis, whereas HR includes that instruction in every single PAL letter they issue. The National Labor Relations Board typically considers such instructions, when it is clear that they are being issued all the time and in all situations, facially unlawful. That is because the National Labor Relations Act guarantees your right to “discuss your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” with your coworkers. Disciplinary matters are one of the most fundamental aspects of “terms and conditions of employment,” and it is almost always unlawful to forbid you from exercising that right.
Moreover, the scope of the agency’s boilerplate prohibition on speaking with employees during PAL is unlawfully broad, but that would require a longer explanation that you need right now.
In most cases, you can absolutely speak to your coworkers about what is happening to you. To be on the safe side, we suggest limiting such communication to workers occupying positions within the bargaining unit. You are also free to discuss what’s happening with union members and representatives, and in most cases that is precisely what you should do. As for contacting clients, that is a more grey area, so the more cautious course of action would be the wisest.
Can I at least communicate with my supervisor?
Questions of policy and law aside, don’t do that. At a minimum, don’t initiate contact with your supervisor once you’ve been placed on PAL.
Am I going to be fired?
In most cases, these complaints and their corresponding APS reports are not substantiated and the worker is returned to their regular duties when the investigation is concluded. So, probably not.
Who is going to serve my clients while I’m out? What reason will be provided for my absence?
This will depend on your position and work area. In MHSA outpatient mental health, for instance, supervisory staff will most likely take on your caseload. In DS work, a sub or other employee may take over.
Whoever takes over your work responsibilities while you are out will most likely tell both your clients and your coworkers the same thing: a personal matter came up and it is unknown when you will be returning.
What if there is important information related to client care or scheduling that I need to convey to someone where I work?
Contact HR and let someone there know. They will assist you in communicating whatever is necessary to the appropriate individuals.
How long will I be out?
In practice, you may hear nothing from HR for a couple of weeks after being placed on PAL, because HR is still waiting for APS to give them the green light to conduct an agency (Howard Center) investigatory interview with you. HR moves slowly, but APS makes Howard HR look like speed demons. It is not unusual for someone’s leave to last anywhere from three to 12+ weeks. The longest recent PAL was about or over 15 weeks in length (and yes, that worker was reinstated to their normal job).
This whole experience is frightening and humiliating. What do I tell my friends, family, and coworkers? What will they think?
Tell them what you know, which is typically very little: You’ve been placed on paid administrative leave because of a complaint against you. You don’t know the details and probably won’t for some time. In most cases, these reports turn out to be nothing. As for what they’ll probably think, ask yourself what you would think if it was one of them being placed on PAL instead. Probably, you’d give them the benefit of the doubt, if not be outright supportive.
I’m not a member of the union. Do I still get a union representative?
Because the union is your sole recognized representative on basically all matters related to employment, the union has a legal obligation to represent even non-members in disciplinary matters up to a point. If representation for a non-member suddenly requires the assistance of a professional union staffer or a union attorney, that non-member will be charged a $250 hourly rate for these services, which are costly and which the local—due to insufficient membership numbers—cannot afford.
Tips while you are on paid administrative leave
Join the union if you aren’t already a member. A union rep will be putting in a lot of time, energy, and worrying on your behalf. Unless that rep is actually a Council 93 staff representative (as opposed to a union rep who is just another employee of the agency), your representative is not being paid for any it. Not only is joining the union the right thing to do at any and all times, it is especially the right thing to do when you are placed on PAL. Leaving aside that a non-member will be expected to pay an hourly rate in the hopefully-unlikely event that arbitration or union attorney involvement is necessary—e.g., if you are actually fired—there is still the matter that the best way to honor the union and your rep for their assistance is to sign a member card and pay dues.
Don’t get inside your own head. Easier said than done, but probably the single most valuable thing for you to know. You will be naturally inclined to obsessively wonder about the identity of the client, the reporter (if a different individual from the client), and the actual allegation or even just its general nature. Don’t do that. If you have to wonder in the first place, then all of that is a waste of your time and will only make your life needlessly miserable. For the same reason, don’t get into repetitive “what-if” thinking.
Don’t communicate directly with HR. The moment you are placed on PAL, notify the union (firstname.lastname@example.org or text/voicemail to 802 391 0123). Ask your assigned steward to notify HR that all future communications related to your PAL should be conducted through your union representative. The only time you should communicate directly with HR while on PAL is to provide information related to client care in your absence, or during your formal HR investigative interview with a steward present.
Don’t allow yourself to feel ashamed or humiliated. You haven’t done anything wrong; you have just been caught up in an insane web of bureaucracies and policies.
Don’t let the boss isolate you. This applies to almost all disciplinary issues. To continue getting away with all kinds of shady stuff, bosses depend on the victim or recipient keeping their mouth shut. This also prevents workers from discovering that we are experiencing many of the same problems, let alone getting together to do something about them. Don’t let investigations or discipline happen in the dark. It only hurts your cause—there is rarely a benefit—and in many ways it hurts the rest of us, too.
Don’t isolate yourself. It’s one thing to take a day or two to absorb the shock of what has happened, but it won’t do you any good to isolate yourself from others while on PAL. If anything, surround yourself with as many friends, coworkers, family members, or other supports as possible. This will help you keep up your spirits.
Use your time for things other than worrying. You have an unknown amount of paid time off. Not only is it not coming out of your existing CTO, you are continuing to accumulate CTO and pay as normal during PAL. Now is the time to get to whatever projects, crafts, or activities you’ve been putting off for lack of time.
Don’t freak out when days (or even weeks) go by without any news on your situation. That is totally normal. These things can take long time. Occasionally, they can take a very long time. You may not hear from your steward for days at a time, sometimes more, but that does not mean you’ve been forgotten—it only means there isn’t any new information to communicate. That being said, don’t be shy about reaching out to your steward to talk about how you’re coping and to satisfy the sometimes-overwhelming need to confirm that, truly, there have been no developments in your case.
Let your coworkers support you. If you have regular coworkers who want to express their support for you at work or with HR, it’s usually a good idea to let them do that. You may want to run it by your union rep first to make sure there isn’t a tactical reason against it, but otherwise it’s a good thing.
Last updated 9/17/19.