New leadership at DHS cracks down on overtime abuse at CBP

Wednesday - 1/29/2014, 2:28pm EST

Lauren Larson, coordinating producer, Federal News Radio

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By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

About 900 Homeland Security Department employees took an immediate pay cut of roughly 25 percent this week as the secretary halted the use of unforeseen administrative overtime.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson signed a memo Monday directing agency leaders to suspend Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AOU) for employees whose duties do not meet the requirements. This includes some employees working in headquarters offices, training instructors and employees who have been collecting AUO pay inappropriately, according to internal investigators.

Catherine Emerson, the DHS chief human capital officer, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce about Johnson's decision Tuesday during a hearing on the issue.

"I don't know of anybody who could sustain a 25 percent pay cut from one day to the next, and that's what just happened. We thought there was going to be an implementation time," said Brandon Judd, a border patrol agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 17,000 border patrol agents. "We thought the agency was going to give these effective employees 180 days and they didn't. It was overnight."

Emerson said roughly 25,000-to-28,000 DHS employees use AUO, and most of those work for Customs and Border Protection. With investigations ongoing, she said more employees could lose their AUO.

"We have a new secretary and a new deputy secretary who inherited this situation and were briefed on it when they came in," she said. "They have taken it very seriously as we see from the memo that was put out."

Emerson said it's an interim measure while DHS, the IG and the Government Accountability Office, Office of Special Counsel, the DHS Office of General Counsel and others continue to review the situation.

Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel of OSC, said the agency received reports of overtime pay abuse from 12 whistleblowers at 12 separate locations within DHS — nine of those involved CBP.

"For years, it was the norm for employees, especially within CBP, to extend their shifts by two hours a day every day increasing their pay 25 percent," she said. "Management officials were aware of the overtime abuse and often misused it themselves."

According to regulations, AUO only may be used when an employee's hours cannot be scheduled in advance due to substantial amount of irregular work.

Lerner said in the cases OSC is looking at "AUO is used routinely nearly every day and is an entrenched part of the culture of CBP and other parts of DHS. In some cases the allegations extend to extreme misconduct many employees spend the extra overtime not working at all, they relax, surf the Internet and sometimes they are not even present in the workplace.

Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he hopes the new leadership at DHS will help change that culture.

"We're under tight financial restrictions here when we're allocating money and it's being misused and we're looking at doing some things that reduce manpower in the process and this is going on, it drives me crazy," he said.

National Border Patrol Council's Judd said some border patrol officers were told that they could count on AUO as consistent pay when they were hired. He said the hiring memorandum that went out to prospective employees promised 25 percent AUO.

He said it was used as a recruitment tool as early as 16 years ago when he was hired because entry-level salaries were not commensurate to other law enforcement agencies.

Judd said AUO still is applicable today. For instance, he said agents in the field are using AUO correctly, but the overtime system needs to be modernized.

Ronald Vitiello, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol, also said the AUO system, created 50 years ago, is outdated and insufficient. He said agents increasingly conduct surveillance, intelligence and border security activity remotely.

"The work of securing the border is no longer limited to physical presence and our compensation system should reflect the current operational environment," he said.

Judd said that without AUO entry level positions at CBP still are not competitive with other law enforcement jobs. He said starting salary is generally about $10,000 less than other agencies including city and federal law enforcement agencies.

Both Judd and Vitiello say, even though it would mean a pay cut for CBP agents, they support legislation in the Senate and House that would increase manpower by 20 percent by placing 5,000 additional trained agents at the border and giving the agency flexibility in scheduling practices.

While CBP is where most of the abuses are taking place, Lerner said the problem is departmentwide. She said issuing a DHSwide directive on AUO could go a long way.

"These are terrific interim steps but the problem is there still hasn't been a directive issued to stop it. This isn't rocket science. It shouldn't be that difficult to issue a directive saying that folks who don't meet [the] criteria shouldn't be taking AUO," she said.

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