Clarification of Decisions Dealing with the Costs of Meals and Breaks at Employee's Official Duty Stations

B-233807: Aug 27, 1990

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This document responds to a Social Security Administration (SSA) request for clarification of prior GAO decisions dealing with the costs of meals and breaks at employee's official duty stations. SSA presented a number of issues regarding when the costs of meals, breaks or refreshments are payable or reimbursable for government and nongovernment sponsored meetings, conferences and seminars.

Specific statutory authority exists for the government to pay for the meals of government personnel in travel status. For those employees not in travel status, it is well established that in the absence of statutory authority, the government may not pay per diem, subsistence expenses, or furnish free meals or refreshments to employees at their official duty stations. This rule applies even though the employees may be working under unusual circumstances. This is not to say, however, that there are not situations where agencies have specific statutory authority to incur such costs or where we have recognized limited exceptions to the general rule. Our Office has recognized that the Government Employees Training Act (Training Act), authorizes agencies to reimburse necessary subsistence expenses incurred by those who attend training programs at their duty stations where the costs of meals and coffee breaks were found necessary to achieve the objectives of a training program under the Training Act. The Training Act also provides the basis for two exceptions that are not strictly limited to training situations. The first exception permits payment of a registration or attendance fee that includes a nonseparable charge for the cost of a meal representing an incidental part of an externally organized or sponsored conference or meeting. The other meeting exception permits payment under certain circumstances for meals where the cost of the meal is not included in the conference or meeting's registration fee and a separate charge is made. Our office recently addressed whether the exceptions authorize reimbursement of "meal" expenses incurred in connection with internal business meetings or conferences sponsored by government agencies. We concluded that there was no basis to use appropriated funds to reimburse the cost of meals served at what are essentially agency business meetings. Finally, we have determined that payment of refreshment expenses under the Government Employees Incentive Awards Act may be allowed in certain circumstances.