Dept. of Homeland Security suspends overtime program

Updated 1 p.m.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is suspending an overtime program that officials say has been widely abused, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

DHS officials are suspending administratively uncontrollable overtime (AUO) for certain employees who work in the headquarters of department agencies, full-time training instructors and those found by DHS investigators to have improperly received the overtime.

“DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds,” Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesman, said by e-mail. “While many frontline officers and agents across the department require work hour flexibility, often through the use of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO), misuse of these funds is not tolerated. Late last year, DHS leadership initiated a department-wide review of the use of AUO, and today the Department announced an important initial step in reforming the use of this program.”

Employees were informed of the suspension shortly before a Tuesday afternoon congressional hearing into the overtime abuses. In testimony submitted in advance of the Senate subcommittee on the federal workforce hearing, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) reported on widespread abuse of the overtime program at some DHS facilities.

About 95 DHS employees at facilities in Northern Virginia allegedly increased their pay by 25 percent through overtime abuse, according to the Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staffers, including managers, at the National Targeting Centers in Herndon and Reston, Va., allegedly, she said, “improperly claim AUO, up to two hours a day, every day.”

Overtime abuse allegations by employee whistleblowers have been the target of ongoing investigations by Lerner’s office and members of Congress.  In a statement planned for the hearing, subcommittee chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said a report from Lerner to President Obama in October “showed that employees from multiple DHS agencies regularly misuse AUO.”

The report, Tester said, found that in the CBP Commissioner’s Situation Room in Washington, employees use the overtime program for “even watching TV or surfing the Internet.”

“We all greatly appreciate the work being done by the men and women at DHS,” he added. “However, the employee actions and misuse of public funds outlined in OSC’s report are unacceptable.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Lerner plans to reveal six new cases that she said have been referred to DHS for investigation. In addition to the Virginia cases, her prepared testimony includes allegations that:

 “Five Border Patrol Agents detailed to work as CrossFit instructors in El Centro, Calif., routinely claim AUO, increasing their base pay by 15 percent every pay period.”
 “Approximately 275 CBP employees in the Office of Internal Affairs (OIA) improperly claim AUO, up to two hours a day, every day, with the full knowledge and approval of the OIA leadership.”
 About 440 CBP employees in El Paso, Tex., are improperly receiving overtime payments, including supervisory agents claiming hours when completing administrative tasks and Border Patrol agents claiming time when assigned to light injury duty and when performing routine shift change activities.
 “Employees working at CBP headquarters in Washington improperly claim AUO on a daily basis.”
 Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees in Chattanooga, Tenn., “routinely claim AUO, up to two hours a day, every day, with the full knowledge and approval of their supervisor but fail to either work any additional hours or perform duties that qualify.”

Testimony submitted by DHS officials does not address the specific allegations. In their statement, Catherine Emerson, the department’s chief personnel officer, and Ron Vittiello, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, said “a number of internal investigations are being conducted” into overtime abuse.

“We are examining those practices because we are concerned by allegations that AUO has not always been employed appropriately under the law,” Emerson and Vittiello said in their testimony.

They said DHS leadership has ordered limits on the use of the overtime program in certain cases and “is studying additional measures.”

federaldiary@washpost.com

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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