Though the establishment of the 59-minute rule is apparently lost to history, it is most likely celebrated by civilian employees as much today as it was at its inception; and not just in the Army. Other Department of Defense branches use it as well as several other federal organizations.
Army officials say the time off is usually given to a government employee either as a way to forgive an unusually rare tardiness due to unforeseen circumstances or as an early release incentive at the start of a holiday -- all at the behest of a supervisor.
"There is no regulatory guidance on it," said Terry Ortega, a human resources specialist at the Fort Knox Civilian Personnel Advisory Center. "The 59-minute rule is not actually a rule and is not found in specific regulatory guidance. It is a term that has evolved for authorized infrequent release of employees of an hour or less."
According to a Department of Army article written by Mike Litak and published in The Army Lawyer titled The Fifty-Nine-Minute Rule: White Christmas, Gray Area? (see link below), "There is no government-wide fifty-nine minute rule as such," but … "the power of federal agencies to grant it nonetheless derives from broad statutory authority to regulate their workforces."
The article states that the 59-minute rule has become a time-honored tradition with some noteworthy administrative case decisions, which serves to establish rules and principles for the practice.
Ortega said there is sometimes confusion over what the 59-minute rule is and is not.
"It is simply an approved absence," said Ortega. "It is not part of an award system; it is not an entitlement."
According to an Oct. 4, 2016 rule established at U.S. Army Garrison-Daegu in South Korea, called Policy Letter #81 (see link below), "The 59-minute rule is considered an approved absence period that is at the discretion of managers and supervisors."
Ortega said the 59-minute rule policy letter is the only such that she is aware of to have ever been established at a U.S. Army installation.
The letter provided guidance for managers and supervisors in their use of the measure. Although the guidance applied only to employees at Daegu, some of it is worth noting:
• This rule is not to be used to replace time-off awards or other types of recognition.
• The time spent on an excused absence is considered part of an employee's basic work week; therefore Army mangers/supervisors should use the authority sparingly.
• The 59-minute rule is considered an approved absence period that is at the discretion of managers and supervisors and is often granted on the Friday before a Monday Holiday and/or before a major holiday (i.e. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's)
• Where absences are for longer than brief periods, an excused absence is generally inappropriate.
• Supervisors must be given the delegated authority to allow an excused absence period for employees.
• Supervisors/managers should always check with higher-level managers before making a practice of exercising this discretion.
• Higher-level managers should always ensure that they're not violating negotiated contracts with any bargaining units before granting the 59-minute rule.
• The 59-Minute Rule should be used with discretion, and sparingly to avoid abusing the privilege.
• Supervisors should avoid routinely granting 59 minutes.
Ortega explained that the reasoning behind 59 minutes is because annual leave is typically calculated in one-hour increments, so the measure is applied to situations shorter than an hour. She emphasized, however, that the rule is not a privilege or right.
"Managers and supervisors with authority to grant brief absences should consider that they are stewards of government resources and the time being granted is at the taxpayer's expense," Ortega said. "The 59-minute rule should be used judiciously."
(Editor's Note: Eric Pilgrim contributed to this article.)