Special counsel skeptical about DHS fixes for overtime abuse

A federal investigator who highlighted concerns about alleged overtime abuses by Department of Homeland Security employees expressed skepticism in recent days over the agency’s efforts to address the issue.

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told lawmakers at two congressional hearings this week that Homeland Security’s solutions mirror the steps it took to address the problem when it first arose in 2008. She called the latest response “a little bare bones.”

“The lack of progress in implementing plans first outlined five years ago raises questions about the agency’s willingness or ability to confront this important problem,” Lerner said in an Oct. 31 letter to President Obama.

Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard said Thursday that acting department head Rand Beers has called for a comprehensive review of the matter by the agency’s general counsel, adding that DHS does not tolerate the misuse of overtime pay. “DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds,” he said.

The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower claims, issued a report last month saying Homeland Security employees were padding their paychecks with “administratively uncontrollable overtime,” a form of pay that compensates employees for unanticipated work often performed by law-enforcement agents.

“These are not border patrol guys chasing bad guys who can’t stop what they are doing and fill out paperwork for overtime. We are not questioning that,” Lerner told The Washington Post in an interview last month. “These are employees sitting at their desks, collecting overtime because it’s become a culturally acceptable practice.”

MORE: Homeland Security workers routinely boost pay with unearned overtime, report says

The misuse of overtime pay amounts to about $9 million per year, according to the report.

Lerner testified about the matter on Tuesday before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee, and on Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. She noted that Homeland Security has promised to conduct an audit and simplify its guidance on administratively uncontrollable overtime.

“I’m hopeful that will lead to change, but it is an entrenched problem, a widespread problem, a part of the culture, and it might take a change in the law to end it,” Lerner said Wednesday.

A bipartisan proposal from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) would change the way Homeland Security pays its employees for work beyond eight hours a day.

The legislation would replace administratively uncontrollable overtime with three options: working 100 hours per pay period and receiving a 25 percent differential; working 90 hours and receiving a 12 percent differential; or working no overtime at all. Overtime worked beyond 100 hours would be compensated with time off.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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Josh Hicks · November 20, 2013