Securing Their Paychecks: Homeland Security Agencies Abuse Overtime Rules to the Tune of Almost $9M

Employees from six Homeland Security Department offices have abused an overtime program and cost the government about $8.7 million a year, according an Office of Special Counsel letter and report sent Thursday to the president and Congress.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told President Barack Obama and lawmakers that whistle-blowers alerted her office to the abuses. Lerner's letter and an accompanying report detailed allegations of overtime abuses in Washington. She said her office is investigating five other overtime abuse cases and expects the allegations to be substantiated.

The Office of Special Counsel is an independent government investigative and prosecutorial office.

According to one whistle-blower, some Customs and Border Protection employees assigned to the commissioner's situation room at its headquarters in Washington were paid about two hours of overtime nearly every day but spent much of that time watching television, surfing the Internet or otherwise relaxing at their desks.

Other offices cited in the report are:

—The CBP office of training and development in Glynco, Ga.

—The Office of Security and Integrity at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters in Washington.

—The Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston.

—CBP facilities in San Ysidro, Calif., and Laredo, Texas.

In her letter to Obama and lawmakers, Lerner said the so-called administratively uncontrollable overtime is "intended to be used only when an employee's hours cannot be scheduled in advance" because of a heavy workload or "irregular work." She said none of the reported abuses at the six DHS offices met that requirement.

"Such abuse of overtime pay is a violation of the public trust and a gross waste of scarce government funds," Lerner wrote. "It is incumbent upon DHS to take effective steps to curb the abuse. It is up to the administration and Congress to develop a revised pay system, if warranted, that ensures fair compensation for employees who are legitimately working overtime."

In an April 17 letter to Lerner's office, James F. Tomsheck, assistant CBP commissioner for internal affairs, said the reported overtime abuses didn't comport with CBP rules and would be addressed.

Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesman, said Thursday that while some overtime is necessary at various DHS agencies, misuse of overtime "is not tolerated."

"DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer fund," Boogaard said. "As part of our ongoing commitment to reducing waste and abuse, Acting Secretary (Rand) Beers has requested a comprehensive, department-wide review of the use of (overtime)."

The Washington Post first reported the details of Lerner's letter and report.

Overtime costs have long been a concern for Homeland Security as federal budgets have continued to suffer significant cuts.

According to an Associated Press analysis of Border Patrol overtime costs in 2012, the agency spent more than $1.4 billion on overtime costs. Agents are routinely paid an average of two hours of overtime a day. Border agents can earn anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent extra pay an hour for the first two hours of overtime, with the extra cash being steadily reduced every hour after that because of complicated overtime rules.

Over the course of a year, an agent can earn about $15,000 more than the base salary, which for a more experienced agent is typically more than $60,000 a year. Agents are limited to $35,000 in overtime annually.

The cost of overtime rose from about $155.8 million in 2006 to more than $331 million in 2011. That increase coincides with the addition of about 9,000 agents in the past six years and the drop of apprehensions to a nearly 40-year low, from more than 1 million arrests in 2006 to about 340,000 in 2011

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