Federal employees at the Department of Homeland Security call it the “candy bowl,” a pot of overtime money they have long dipped into to pad their pay even if they haven’t earned it, whistleblowers say.
This practice, which can add up to 25 percent to a paycheck, has become so routine over the last generation that it’s often held out as a perk when government managers try to recruit new employees, according to these accounts.
In a report submitted to the White House and Congress on Thursday, the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) details what it calls a “profound and entrenched problem” at DHS and a “gross waste of government funds.” Based on the testimony of seven whistleblowers, the OSC concludes that the pervasive misuse of overtime pay in six DHS offices, including four within Customs and Border Protection, comes to $8.7 million a year.
At issue is Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime, which is meant only to compensate for urgent and unanticipated work like that often undertaken by law enforcement agents.
But Carolyn Lerner, special counsel at the OSC, an investigative and prosecutorial agency, said in an interview that many employees across DHS now consider the overtime pay their due. She said the whistleblowers’ testimony suggests that the department bill for these improper payments is running in the tens of millions of dollars a year.
“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.”
Over the past year, as federal cuts have torn through department budgets, the use and misuse of overtime known as AUO has become a matter of increasing concern among federal managers, employees and unions.
Asked about the special counsel’s report, a DHS spokesman said acting Secretary Rand Beers has ordered a department-wide review of how AUO is used and whether it complies with the law and other rules.
“DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds,” said 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.”
In a written response to the special counsel’s allegations, the CBP’s assistant commissioner for internal affairs, James Tomsheck, said the agency would “work towards a unified and simplified agency-wide directive on AUO” and would show all employees a video to reinforce rules on proper AUO use.
Federal employees across a range of agencies are eligible to receive this kind of overtime pay, and each agency has some latitude to determine how to regulate it. The Office of Special Counsel said it had not received reports of abuses other than at DHS.
Some DHS employees routinely claim more than their “straight eight,” with two hours of overtime every day, recounted one of the whistleblowers, Jose Rafael Ducos Bello, who works as a supervisor for Customs and Border Protection, until recently in Washington.
“It’s pickpocketing Uncle Sam,” Ducos Bello said. “Employees will sit at their desks for an extra two hours, catching up on Netflix, talking to friends or using it for commuting time.”