Proposed bill would change overtime policies for Homeland Security agents

Washington Post

by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

A bill to change the Department of Homeland Security’s overtime-pay policies is slated to be introduced in the next few weeks by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

The legislation, which is expected to be proposed first in the House, is being called a long-term solution for providing DHS border agents with fair compensation while cutting down on abuses, which whistleblowers say have cost the government more than $8.7 million a year.

The idea was first proposed last year by the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 17,000 employees.

A report issued last week by the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) found that some DHS employees were using “Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime” to pad their paychecks.

That form of overtime is intended to pay for unanticipated, urgent work, such as capturing criminals or curtailing illegal crossings. But it has, in some cases, become a part of office culture for agents who routinely sit at their desks and clock extra hours, the report said.

At the same time, many agents on the border work additional hours beyond their “straight eight shifts” during legitimate emergencies.

Under the bipartisan proposal, that pay would be replaced with three options: working 100 hours per pay period and receiving a 25 percent differential; working 90 hours and receiving a 12 percent differential; or working no overtime at all.

The biggest change would be that unscheduled overtime worked beyond 100 hours will be treated as compensatory time off, whereas scheduled overtime would be paid.

Agents will face an approximately $7,000 pay reduction per agent when implemented. In total the annual cost saving to the taxpayer will exceed $125 million per year, said Shawn Moran, vice president of union. In recognition of this pay cut, agents will receive an additional 40 hours of leave in 2014 and 2015.

The new pay scale would “smooth out the peaks and valleys and make the 10-hour days less volatile and more consistent,” Chaffetz said, adding that there needs to be more “good old-fashioned time management.”

“This plan should also drive down overtime dollars dramatically through better planning,” Chaffetz said. “If there’s a legitimate use for overtime for chasing bad guys then fine, and it should be a part of the regular overtime pay. But if its the desk jockey milking the system, then this is what has to change.”

On Wednesday, Tester and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), leaders on the Senate committee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security, demanded that the department explain why it allowed employees to continue abusing its overtime pay system even after investigators discovered substantial misuse.

The office of special counsel found that despite its 2008 investigation and a subsequent promise from DHS officials to stop the abuse of overtime, numerous agencies within the department continue to allow employees to illegally claim additional pay.

Tester and Portman said acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers should explain what steps his department is taking to eliminate the abuse and prevent it from happening again.

“While we appreciate DHS taking steps to investigate and eliminate this problem, the report is clear that abuse is systemic across the Department,” the senators said in a letter to Beers.