DHS suspends overtime program under fire for millions in improper payments annually

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 28

Administratively uncontrollable overtime is one Washington mouthful that accurately describes an entrenched problem at the Department of Homeland Security.

This type of overtime has been out of control for a while because of an organizational culture that encouraged abuse of AUO, as it is commonly called.

After knowing about abuses for years, DHS now is suspending the overtime program 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 hearing by the Senate federal workforce subcommittee, where the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) reported on widespread abuse of the overtime program at some DHS facilities.

For some 900 workers, most in the Border Patrol, the suspension means an immediate 25 percent pay cut, according to the union representing the agents.

Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner said about 95 workers improperly increased their pay by that much at the National Targeting Centers in Herndon and Reston, Va. Her office learned about the problems from employee whistleblowers.

The overtime is considered “administratively uncontrollable” because it “may only be used for irregular and unpredictable work beyond an employee’s normal shift,” Lerner said. DHS had been told about the abuse at least by 2008, she said, but did not take corrective action.

It has become entrenched at DHS, she said, costing taxpayers an estimated $37 million annually in improper payments at 12 department offices.

Overtime abuse allegations by employee whistleblowers have been the target of ongoing investigations by Lerner’s office, members of Congress and DHS. 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.”

Lerner revealed six new cases involving allegations that her office considers credible and that have been referred to DHS for investigation. In addition to the Virginia cases, she said allegations indicate:

●“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 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.”

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said agents support legislation sponsored by Tester and others that would change the overtime program in a way that would cut the pay of his members. He said Border Patrol employees were told when they were hired that AUO would be a regular part of their pay but that same arrangement is now sometimes considered wrong. By supporting the bill, union leaders had hoped to avoid the kind of action DHS took with the AUO suspension.

The legislation would result in a $6,500 annual pay cut per agent, he said.

“The primary reason the agents support the legislation is that it guarantees the manpower we need in the field to accomplish our mission. I learned early in my career that manpower and agent safety are linked,” he told the committee. “This bill provides the equivalent of 20 percent more manpower, or 5,000 trained agents at the border.”

The bill would allow Border Patrol agents to choose from three salary options, according to Tester’s office — work 100 hours per two-week pay period and get 20 hours of overtime, 90 hours with 10 hours overtime or 80 hours with no overtime.

Judd said the legislation would save more than $1 billion over 10 years.

“Moving to this new system will be a pay cut from what Border Patrol agents have traditionally earned,” he added. “However, we believe ensuring proper manpower, long-term stability and safety is worth a pay reduction.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
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