DHSUnjustified overtime pay routinely used by DHS employees

Published 4 November 2013

A report by the Federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) offers details of what it calls a “gross waste of government funds” and a “profound and entrenched problem”: illegally claimed overtime by DHS employees. The practice, which may add up to 25 percent to an employee’s paycheck, has become so routine that it is often promoted as a perk when managers try to recruit new employees.

The Federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) submitted a report to the White House and Congress on last Thursday in which it detailed what it calls a “gross waste of government funds” and a “profound and entrenched problem” at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Washington Post reports that  OSC is referring to the testimony of seven whistleblowers who claim employees at six DHS offices, including four within Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have illegally claimed overtime pay totaling $8.7 million a year.  The whistleblowers told OSC that the practice could add up to 25 percent to a paycheck, and has become so routine that it is often promoted as a perk when managers try to recruit new employees.

The overtime pay in question is referred to as Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO), which is meant to compensate for urgent and unanticipated work when an employee’s hours cannot be scheduled in advance. Carolyn Lerner, special counsel at OSC,believes that many DHS employees consider overtime pay their due. “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 told the Post. “These are employees sitting at their desks, collecting overtime because it’s become a culturally acceptable practice.”

Recent budget cuts and the sequester have focused attention on the misuse of funds among government agencies. Acting DHS secretary Rand Beers has ordered a department-wide review of the use of AUO. “DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds,” said DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard. “While many frontline officers and agents across the department require work hour flexibility, often through the use of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO), misuse of these funds is not tolerated.”

Jose Rafael Ducos Bello, a former supervisor for CBP,in Springfield, Virginia., report that abuse of AUO was rampant at DHS. “It’s pickpocketing Uncle Sam,” Ducos Bello told the Post. “Employees will sit at their desks for an extra two hours, catching up on Netflix, talking to friends or using it for commuting time.” Ducos Bello estimated that twenty-seven employees in the Commissioner’s Situation Room, a part of CBP, improperly recorded a total of $696,000 AUO hours. “It was such misuse that I felt I had a legal obligation to report. I will sleep better at night,” said Ducos Bello, a 24-year veteran of government employment. “It’s like a father who has a son who commits a crime and has to report it for the health of their child’s future.”

Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 17,000 employees, is pushing back at the OSC report. Moran claims that AUO has long been “promised, advertised and used by every single agent who’s a non-supervisor….Suddenly now the party line from the agency is ‘this is not part of your base salary’,” Moran said. “There’s been a mentality shift in CBPabout securing the border; now it’s about securing the bottom line.” Moran recognizes that misuse of AUO hours may occur, but he consider most of the money spent toward AUO as well spent on patrol and enforcement tasks whic protect the border or monitor criminal defendants.

In a letter to the White Houseaccompanying the report, Lerner noted a CBPletter issued in 2008 in response to a OSCreport on allegations of AUO abuse at two CBPoffices in Washington state, CBPpromised to implement “an Agency-wide AUO policy directive [to] bring conformity to the policies and practices.” Lerner reported to the White House that “the lack of progress in implementing plans first outlined five years ago raises questions about the agency’s willingness or ability to confront this important problem.”