Cuts in overtime are painful for federal agencies, workers

Along with planning for furloughs, federal agencies are cutting overtime pay with measures that will save money in the short term, but critics say will harm efficiency, compromise public safety and unfairly penalize federal law enforcement agents.

Overtime cuts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have left some airports clogged with long lines of travelers, including about 1,000 people who missed flights because of four-hour waits in customs recently at Miami International Airport.

Employee advocates warn of other scenarios, including Navy jets facing reduced readiness and Border Patrol agents being forced to break off pursuits of smugglers.

Those agents are among the federal workers who count overtime as part of their regular income and see the cuts, combined with furloughs, as a double hardship.

Budget hawks, however, view overtime as padding government payrolls.

And the $85 billion in forced overtime cuts across the government have exposed unexpected fault lines.

“People hear overtime and they just distort it,” said Shawn Moran, a senior patrol agent based in San Diego who serves as vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. Between furloughs and overtime reductions, agents face a 35 percent cut in their paychecks, more than other federal workers, according to union representatives.

“That’s just kicking a person when they’re down,” Moran said.

Another wrinkle is that while the government pays billions of dollars in overtime each year, White House officials and congressional oversight committees don’t track it enough to know how much is used, or what percentage it is of the federal payroll.

Pete Sepp, vice president for communications and policy for the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union, expressed surprise and disappointment at the lack of oversight.

“We don’t have to second-guess every agency on their overtime decisions, but there’s a value at looking at the collected data to see if there are patterns for further evaluation or cost savings,” he said. “Who knows how much it could be?”

Like private-sector employees, many federal workers are entitled under the Fair Labor Standards Act to receive overtime pay at a time-and-a-half rate for work beyond a 40-hour workweek. Others, including many federal law enforcement agents, draw “straight time” pay at the regular hourly rate for what is called administratively uncontrollable overtime, for duties that keep them on the job.

Each federal agency can establish work schedules and allow the use of overtime to meet mission requirements. Agencies are not required to report on their overtime use to either the Office of Personnel Management or the Office of Management and Budget, and officials at the agencies say they do not collect the information.

“Overtime is a management tool,” said John Palguta, vice president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “I’m not going to suggest it’s never been abused.”

But overtime ultimately saves the government money, Palguta said, enabling agencies to handle busy periods with existing staff “rather than hiring extra people who hang around doing nothing when it’s slow.”

Some federal agencies, boosted by Congress’s new short-term funding plan, have reduced or eliminated furloughs. The Defense Department cut its projected 22 furlough days to 14. The Agriculture Department’s meat inspectors got a full reprieve, as did federal prison staff at the Justice Department.

Workers at Customs and Border Protection also are hoping for relief, but barring any changes, the department expects to save $248 million in overtime by reducing hours and changing the eligibility of some employees.

Overtime reductions at airports and ports of entry began March 2. Agency warnings about increased wait times for international arrivals have materialized, particularly at the Miami airport, the nation’s busiest for international flights, where 200 travelers spent the night of March 16 sleeping on cots in the auditorium after missing flights.

“There were a lot of upset passengers,” said airport spokesman Greg Chin, who added that international travelers should brace for similar waits during peak times. Waits were significantly shorter the following weekend. “Some days are better than others,” he said.

Domestic flights at some airports may also be affected. The Transportation Security Administration plans to implement a hiring freeze that it says will mean 1,000 vacancies by Memorial Day and up to 2,600 vacancies by September. Planned cuts in overtime mean the shortages will not be fully covered, the TSA said.

Overtime cuts are set to begin April 7 for Border Patrol agents.

“When they are hired, agents are informed that they will almost never work a regular eight-hour shift,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the agents.

The agents often work 10-hour days or longer, especially when shifts end during law enforcement operations, officials said.

“If we’re tracking a person, are we supposed to break off the chase?” asked Moran, the senior Border Patrol agent. “It will cause problems with shift changes, our busiest times, and the illegals try to exploit that.”

Many agencies have become more reliant on overtime because of limited hiring, according to George J. Smith, national vice president of the Federal Managers Association, which represents nearly 200,000 managers. “A lot of agencies have been unable to hire for some time,” he said.

Smith is a manager with the Naval Air System Command’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast in Jacksonville, Fla., which helps maintain and modernize naval aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet and the P-3 Orion.

The center’s workload fluctuates based on the Navy’s needs. Smith’s staff is frozen at about 200 workers, he said.

“In the past, we would augment the workforce with contractors,” he added. But budget cuts have reduced contractor numbers, “so therefore our overtime increased.”

With no hiring, reduced contractor support and less overtime, Smith said, flying hours and training will be reduced. “There’s no doubt we’re putting war fighters at risk,” he said.

The Social Security Administration says it has cut overtime by 64 percent as a result of sequestration. The agency had already begun closing field offices 30 minutes earlier each day and at noon every Wednesday in recent months to avoid paying overtime, warning that visitors will wait longer for service — 30 minutes on average — and in some locations, two hours or more.

The additional overtime cuts will worsen service, the agency said. Applicants for disability benefits will wait on average two weeks longer for a decision on their claim.

“We also will be forced to curtail cost-effective program integrity work such as reviewing the cases of current disability recipients to ensure they are still eligible for payments,” agency spokesman Jim Courtney said.

The Federal Aviation Administration will use overtime on a limited basis, even while furloughing every controller for 11 days between April 21 and Sept. 30.

“We’re at a loss to understand this,” said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which says overtime money should be used to reduce furlough days.

Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the FAA, says the agency has cut overtime “significantly” and will use it only in limited circumstances, including for severe weather events.

“Eliminating overtime entirely would not eliminate the need for employee furloughs and could have severe operational impacts,” she said.

But Church said “the potential for widespread delays” exists under the FAA’s plan. “No one is sure how it will play out.”

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