The Washington Post

Border Patrol union advocates overtime changes that would cut officers’ pay

The Nuevo Laredo port of entry into Mexico. Agents have seized millions in cash headed to Mexican drug cartels after inspecting vehicles headed from the U.S. to Mexico. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

It’s not every day that a federal labor organization tells Congress to reduce union members’ pay.

But that’s what the National Border Patrol Council advocates.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

“Frankly, I am asking you for a pay cut,” Brandon Judd, president of the council, recently told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. “I am coming to you and I am telling you, agents are willing to take a pay cut.”

The context: House and Senate committees are investigating abuses of administratively uncontrollable overtime. The Senate federal workforce subcommittee will have a hearing on it next week, following the House hearing last month.

This type of overtime, commonly called AUO, is meant to cover Border Patrol agents and other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) law enforcement officers who must work longer than scheduled hours when, for example, chasing suspects through the desert.

But rather than a method used to compensate employees for the unexpected circumstance, it turned into a regular pay trough even for the desk-bound. That dirtied its reputation for the officers who legitimately needed it.

In an October letter to President Obama, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said “AUO problems are ongoing and pervasive.” She called the abuse “a violation of the public trust and a gross waste of scarce government funds.”

Judd and others could see what was coming.

It’s not that he and other leaders of the Border Patrol Council, which is part of the American Federation of Government Employees, are trying to curry favor with Congress at the expense of their membership. But they do know how to get in front of a situation.

“We see the writing on the walls,” said Shawn Moran, a council spokesman. “We know that the alternative is far worse than what we are pushing for.”

The stinging report from the Office of Special Counsel leaves AUO in its current form a wounded bureaucratic creature with diminished chances of survival.

Perhaps sensing change was coming, union leaders started working with Congress on fixes to the overtime system well before Lerner issued her report. The result is legislation that has the support of Democrats, Republicans and labor, but not management, at least not yet.

DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said “while many frontline officers and agents across the department require work-hour flexibility,” often through the use of AUO, “misuse of these funds is not tolerated.”

DHS is examining the overtime system, and the Obama administration is reviewing the bill. Its chief sponsors are subcommittee chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Senate and subcommittee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in the House, where there also are Democratic co-sponsors.

“Establishing this new pay schedule will make our borders more secure and save taxpayer dollars,” Tester said.

The legislation would provide agents three overtime options: 1) work 100 hours per pay period and get 25 percent overtime; 2) work 90 hours with 12.5 percent overtime; or 3) work no overtime. Comp time could be taken for unscheduled overtime worked beyond 80 to 100 hours per two-week pay period, depending on the option.

Judd said “this legislation will ensure that Americans have a Border Patrol that is properly trained, adequately equipped and fairly compensated.”

Fairly, but not as lucratively.

Moran said most of the union members would lose about $6,500 annually compared with their income before this year’s budget cuts.

So what do they get in return?

“It brings a lot of long-term stability in terms of pay,” Moran said. “That will increase morale.”

Chaffetz said the bill would save taxpayer money.

“In addition to saving $125 million a year, we are looking to bring more consistency to those who risk their lives everyday protecting the border,” he said. “This new pay scale is a long-term solution that will iron out the kinks of the current system through old-fashioned planning and time management. These changes will both reduce opportunities to abuse the system and provide compensation for unanticipated emergencies such as capturing criminals.”

For many years, AUO, which amounted to a 25 percent increase in pay, was routinely expected by agents and promoted by the agency. Union leaders say many field agents generally work 10-hour days.

“When I applied for the job, it was actually a part of the compensation package that you were told that you would earn,” Judd told the House hearing. “ It said that you would earn a substantial amount of irregular overtime in the form of administrative uncontrolled overtime. So, yes, all Border Patrol agents,” until changes about year ago, “were told that this was part of your compensation package.”

But simply ending the overtime system without a fair replacement would be a deal-breaker for many agents.

“If you remove the overtime system that we currently have,” Judd said, “you wouldn’t be able to retain employees. . . . We need an overtime system that would be cost effective to taxpayers, increase border security and include incentives to retain our employees.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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