Abuse of overtime at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), where some agents stay extra hours to surf the Internet and watch sports, is costing taxpayers millions.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing on the misuse of overtime on Wednesday, which was revealed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner testified on the "long-standing abuse" of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO) at CBP.
Employees routinely add two hours to their workday, increasing their pay by 25 percent. Some employees would pass the time doing administrative tasks. Others spend it "relaxing."
The investigation began after seven whistleblowers came forward, including Jose Ducos-Bello. In September 2012, he came forward about the CBP Commissioner’s "situation room," in Washington, D.C.
"The situation room employees in Mr. Ducos-Bello’s disclosure were not using AUO as the result of any unpredictable or compelling law enforcement need," Lerner said. "Rather, most claimed the overtime for administrative tasks that do not qualify."
"And, according to Mr. Ducos-Bello, many of these employees spent the extra two hours per day not working at all," she said. "They were relaxing, surfing the Internet, watching sports and entertainment channels, or taking care of personal matters."
Furthermore, Ducos-Bello said the director of the situation room authorized and supported the improper use of overtime.
Lerner said the office in D.C. was "not an isolated occurrence."
Violations date back to 2007. A CBP office in Blaine, Washington, reported that employees were given "blanket authorization to work overtime" by their managers and that employees were paid "when they were not actually working."
"This is outrageous," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.). "This is not just an isolated incident, there have been seven whistleblowers, at six facilities."
"I can tell you right now, it’s big," she said. "If you’ve already heard from six offices, I can guarantee you that it is a wink and a nod and it’s something that’s going on throughout the department. And it’s got to stop."
Lerner said the abuses in the six offices alone cost taxpayers $9 million annually.
"While I am hopeful that the department will overcome these obstacles and take definitive action to correct this overtime abuse, I am also realistic," Lerner said. "Based both on the magnitude of the problem and the history of ineffective solutions, it will require a serious commitment to make necessary changes.
Catherine Emerson, the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was unresponsive to questioning at the hearing, frustrating both Republican and Democratic members.
Emerson repeatedly said the DHS is "looking into the matter," and could not name anyone who has been fired.
"What are you here to talk about then?" asked subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah). "Everything’s under review. Who’s reviewing it? Who should have been here to represent the department?"
Emerson could not even answer what would constitute as an abuse of overtime pay.
"It would depend on the situation, it really would," she said.
"This is unbelievable and unbearable, and it is a total lack of leadership from the department and agency," Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz has introduced the Border Patrol Pay Reform Act of 2013 (H.R. 3463) to address the overtime abuses, which would lower overtime costs by $125 million per year.