DoD providing leave leniency due to COVID-19 travel restrictions

Service members can now accrue a leave balance of 120 days until mid 2023

By David Vergun on April 23, 2020

(Photo: Soldiers with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division and 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, guide a 3rd Brigade tank onto a ship at the port of Gwang Yang, South Korea, Feb. 29. The soldiers conducted redeployment operations for the brigade during the COVID-19 outbreak.)

Each year, active-duty service members are granted 30 days of leave, but at the end of each fiscal year, they normally lose any unused leave exceeding 60 days. With the leniency granted due to the pandemic travel restrictions, service members can now accrue a leave balance of up to 120 days until Sept. 30, 2023.

Matthew Donovan, undersecretary of personnel and readiness, signed the authorization for that change April 16.

DoD encourages service members to take leave whenever possible; however, it's not always possible due to deployments and operational commitments, Pentagon officials said, though some extensions have been granted due to long deployments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit service members particularly hard because many are not allowed to travel to see friends and loved ones who live many miles away -- a big incentive for taking leave, Donovan said. Therefore, he continued, the restriction on the leave balance ceiling was relaxed.

"The department's actions to stem the spread of COVID-19 have significantly limited the ability of service members to take leave during this national emergency, and we know that leave is vital to the health and welfare of our force," Donovan stated in his memorandum.

For DoD's civilian workforce, Office of Personnel Management policy already makes allowances for leave accrual under exigent circumstances, such as COVID-19. All restored annual leave must be scheduled and used no later than the end of the leave year ending two years from the year the annual leave was earned after the termination of the current emergency. The normal leave balance service members may carry over each year is 240 hours. However, more hours may be carried over during the current emergency.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper signed a memorandum Monday restricting all DoD uniformed and civilian personnel and their families from traveling to, from or through places identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's travel health notices as Level 3 COVID locations.

The memo is in effect until June 30, though that could change because reviews are taking place every 15 days based on CDC guidance.

The travel restrictions include permanent changes of station and all other official travel, as well as personal leave. Also, flights to or from non-Level 3 countries cannot transit through Level 3 nations.

As of today, the CDC website listed Germany, Italy, Qatar, Afghanistan, South Korea and Japan -- countries where large numbers of service members are stationed -- as Level 3 locations. Many other countries also are at Level 3.

Numerous exceptions to the travel ban have been made on a case-by-case basis, Donovan said at an April 18 Pentagon news conference, citing exemptions for medical treatment, personal hardship, separation and retirement.

"The coronavirus disease continues to present significant risk to our forces as the DoD considers domestic and overseas personnel travel," Esper stated in his memorandum. "These movements present the threat of spreading COVID-19 within our ranks and communities. My priorities remain protecting our service members, DoD civilians and families; safeguarding our national security capabilities; and supporting the whole-of-nation response."

This is not the first time extensions have been granted, officials noted. Special leave accrual of up to 75 days was granted during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, due to long or multiple deployments.