DHS Winks at Workers Stealing Unearned Overtime
Policy + Politics

DHS Winks at Workers Stealing Unearned Overtime

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Handout

Employees at the Department of Homeland Security are allegedly continuing to pocket millions of dollars of unearned overtime every year and department officials don’t seem to be doing much about it. 

In fact, some agencies actually encourage it, and use the extra cash as a recruitment tool. 

During a House oversight subcommittee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers seemed shocked to hear that DHS officials were only “reviewing the allegations” put forth by a report from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) which found that some DHS employees were using money from the “Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime” (AUO) fund to pad their paychecks—sometimes increasing their income by 24 percent. 

Related: Two Decades of Waste, Fraud and Abuse and Still No Fix 

The fund is supposed to be used when employees, like border patrol agents, work overtime to respond to emergencies. But the report found that employees are sitting at their desks, claiming up to two hours of overtime every day. Some employees have even dubbed the fund the department’s (taxpayer-funded) “candy bowl.”

When asked by the subcommittee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) what the department was doing to stop the abuse, DHS official Catherine Emerson said her office, which first became aware of the issue in 2009, was “still looking into it.” She told the committee they opened the case on Oct 31 and the “review could take several months.” 

 “October 31? You started a few days ago?” Chaffetz asked. “I can tell exactly why this continues to be a problem. There are millions of tax dollars being stolen from the American people and you’re doing nothing…. Don’t tell me it will take months to review this….You’re a very nice person but your answers are unacceptable.” 

Emerson declined to say when the review will be complete. 

The fund’s abuse is nothing new. The same problem was uncovered five years ago when two CBP offices in Washington State were dipping into the “candy bowl.” At the time, the agency had assured the special council’s office that it would end the abuse.

It hasn’t. 

Testifying before the committee, president of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd said he was told when he applied for his job at BPC that money from the fund would be part of his compensation package. He added that until last year, it was included in the job announcement. BPC Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello confirmed to the committee that funds from the AUO have been used as a recruitment tool. 

Related: Government Wastes More Money Than You Think 

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, author of the report, said the abuse “is such a widespread problem” that it is engrained in the office culture. Indeed, seven whistleblowers within six agencies at DHS have reported the abuse. 

“These are not border patrol guys chasing bad guys who can’t stop what they are doing and fill out paperwork for overtime. We are not questioning that,” Lerner said. “These are employees sitting at their desks, collecting overtime because it’s become a culturally acceptable practice.” 

She suggested a seemingly simple solution. 

“You could put a stop to it right away by saying anyone who’s not working” should not be collecting overtime,” Lerner said. Though she told the committee that the department has been unwilling to resolve the issue in the past, Lerner expressed optimism now that there’s “congressional interest.” Her office is expecting five new reports about what, if any, remedial efforts the department is taking. 

Related: Government Audit Shows Agencies Waste Billions 

In the meantime, Chaffetz has proposed legislation aimed at reducing the funds’ abuse.   

The measure eliminates the AUO fund entirely. Instead, it allows Border Patrol agents to choose to work 100, 90 or 80 hours per two-week period. Any amount worked between 80 hours and the schedule they choose would be compensated as overtime, or time and a half. If they exceeded that amount they would be rewarded through paid leave. 

The proposal would save taxpayers an estimated $125 million a year, but it would also result in an effective pay cut of $7,000 per agent, BPC officials estimate. Though the legislation has received support from the BPC, Department officials say they still have to review the legislation. 

The idea was proposed by the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 17,000 employees. BPC officials say that although it results in a pay cut, it allows the agency to hire more manpower to secure the border. 

“Frankly, I am asking for a pay cut,” Judd said. We gave you a fix. It saves taxpayers money and secures the border. I don’t know why they have to review it.” Judd said. 

Follow Brianna Ehley on Twitter @BriannaEhley 

Top Stories From The Fiscal Times: