Union opposes Homeland Security’s overtime suspension

February 3, 2014

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association on Monday called for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to repeal his department’s suspension of an overtime program that employees have allegedly abused.

Homeland Security last week halted “administratively uncontrollable overtime” for headquarters and training personnel, as well as workers who have been found guilty of abusing the overtime system, responding to a federal investigation that found many employees have boosted their pay with unnecessary and unearned overtime.

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle rides along the border fence separating Nogales, Ariz., right, with Nogales, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull). A Border Patrol vehicle rides along the fence separating Nogales, Ariz., right, with Nogales, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP).

AUO, as the pay is known, is generally meant for agents who do urgent and unanticipated work while performing their duties. But alleged abuses of the system, largely by agents who do not work in the field, have cost taxpayers between $8 million and $37 million per year in improper payments, according to Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistleblower allegations.

The officers union said it “recognizes the importance of the findings” but wants a comprehensive review of the AUO program rather than a halt to the overtime pay for certain employees.

In a statement Monday, the group called the suspension a “perilous directive that places numerous law-enforcement officers immediately under economic duress.” It said the move could cut some employees’ pay by 25 percent.

“The acting [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] director and DHS leadership are drawing from the ‘Wile E Coyote’ management guide: one aspect of a system doesn’t work, so they scrap the entire system,” said Jon Adler, the union’s national president.

The Department of Homeland Security said Monday that it would continue assessing overtime policies in coordination with stakeholders, but the agency made no indication that it would repeal the suspension. “While many frontline officers and agents across the department require work-hour flexibility, often through the use of administratively uncontrollable overtime, misuse of these funds is not tolerated,” the department said in a statement.

Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have proposed legislation that would replace AUO with a three-tiered pay system in which border agents could elect to:

1.) Work 80 hours per two-week period at their base rate of pay

2.) Work 90 hours per two-week period at their base rate plus 12.5 percent

3.) Work 100 hours per two-week period at their base rate plus 25 percent

The National Border Patrol Council has backed that plan, even though it would pay agents less than the current AUO system. The group has said the proposal would provide certainty for border agents, ensuring that Homeland Security leadership does not feel compelled continue cutting overtime for certain employees as a matter of policy.

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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