The Pentagon has decided that members of its civilian bomb squad will not be obligated to pay back up to $173,000 that it says each of them was erroneously paid since the unit was established in 2008, a defense official said.
The Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) waived the debts “after completion of the normal waiver of debt process,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger, a Pentagon spokesman. The decision was acknowledged late Wednesday, a day after The Washington Post published a story that detailed how members of the bomb squad faced potential financial ruin after the Pentagon decided in 2015 that it had incorrectly paid them a 25 percent hazardous duty incentive for years.
The waivers were completed despite some members of the bomb squad expecting that their cases would not be heard for several more weeks. Badger said the approval of hazardous duty pay — promised in offer letters to the bomb technicians — was “an administrative error made in good faith, but with severe financial consequences for the employees.”
“The pay was incorrectly authorized through no fault of the employees involved,” Badger said. “They could not have known it was paid in error, and we take this matter very seriously.”
The case pitted nine members of the bomb squad — formally known as the Hazardous Devices Division of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency — against the Pentagon bureaucracy. One member of the squad, Axel Fernandez, committed suicide in April, exacerbating the frustrations of those in the unit. According to emails and memos obtained by The Washington Post, the Pentagon told him he owed back in excess of $136,000.
The decision to revoke the hazardous duty pay was made in January 2015 by a little-known office in the Defense Department known as Washington Headquarters Services (WHS), which provides administrative oversight to numerous Pentagon agencies. Senior officials in WHS promised afterward to assist bomb squad members in having their unexpected debts waived, but they were nonetheless referred to collection by Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) and had no guarantees that the appeals process would find in their favor.
There doesn’t appear to be any effort to restore the hazard pay. Badger said hazardous duty pay is granted only if dangerous work has not been taken into consideration during the final classification process for a job.
“When authorized, hazardous duty pay is paid when an employee performs hazardous duty only for the duration of the hazard,” Badger said. “Misapplication of this provision resulted in the squad members receiving the hazard pay differential during times of annual leave, training, and overtime.”
The decision to waive all debts was made as Sen. Mark R. Warner (D.-Va.) pressed the Pentagon to quickly resolve the issue. In a letter sent Wednesday to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, he said it was his understanding that three members of the bomb squad had so far had their debts waived, and he was concerned the others had not.
Warner also asked for an explanation of how the Defense Department compensates employees, and whether it has faced similar issues in other cases in the past.
“As this case highlights … despite job announcements and offer letters that included promises of hazardous duty pay, the Department apparently can reduce such pay with little or no employee recourse,” Warner wrote.
Badger said that within the Defense Department, pay can vary. For example, a member of the civilian bomb squad at the GS-12 grade level earned a base salary of $62,101. Base pay for the same duties by an enlisted member of the military is about $48,610, plus up to $4,500 in annual explosive ordnance disposal pay, he said.
However, active-duty members of the military serving as bomb technicians have often been eligible to collect reenlistment bonuses of up to $90,000 due to the demand for the job. On the civilian side, other federal agencies also have hazardous duty pay, prompting some members of the Pentagon unit to leave since the decision to eliminate hazard pay there was made.