U.S. Border Patrol agent Jesus Juarez searches for drug smugglers along the Rio Grande River on April 11, 2013 in Mission, Texas. (John Moore / Getty Images)
At Customs and Border Protection, labor and management agree that it’s time to change a decades-old old system for providing overtime pay to Border Patrol agents who work irregular hours. They are at odds, however, on what to do in the meantime.
“What worked 40 years ago doesn’t work for today’s operational needs and threats,” Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing some 16,500 agents, said at a Senate hearing earlier this week. “The real question is where do we go from here.”
The council has endorsed a bill introduced two months ago by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would replace “administratively uncontrollable overtime” (AUO) for Border Patrol agents with a three-tier pay system.
The Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP, also wants to make changes to the overtime system and is reviewing the legislation, according to Catherine Emerson, DHS chief human capital officer. Emerson testified at the same Tuesday hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce.
One day earlier, the department acted to suspend the use of AUO by some headquarters staff, full-time training instructors and other employees whom internal investigators decided were inappropriately receiving the extra pay, Emerson said. AUO is supposed to be used by field agents who work unpredictable and irregular hours.
The step came amid an internal review after an outside investigation last year found that some workers at Customs and Border Protection headquarters were routinely tacking on two hours of AUO each day and doing little, if any, work during that time. The suspension will affect an estimated 900 of as many as 28,000 employees who had been receiving the overtime pay, Emerson said.
While the review is continuing, “this was an interim measure that [DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson] felt needed to be taken right away,” Emerson said.
A DHS spokesman later declined to release a copy of Johnson’s memo spelling out the changes. In a follow-up email, Acting CBP Commissioner Thomas Winkowski told employees that that implementation would follow immediately or following consultation with union leaders. Other forms of overtime and premium pay will not be affected, Winkowski said, adding that he knows compensation is “a critical and personal issue” for employees and their families.
Congress created administratively uncontrollable overtime in 1966; within Homeland Security, CBP accounts for more than three-quarters of AUO spending, according to Emerson. For Border Patrol agents, AUO typically boosts their base pay by 25 percent.
But in a posting on its website, the Border Patrol council argued that the department’s current review could end AUO for employees in intelligence, public relations, checkpoint operations and other areas that provide “essential support” to field agents. In the future, CBP will have difficulty filling those jobs if they are deemed ineligible for overtime, the union said. In the field, the potential changes could also force the agency to add shifts, thus reducing the number of agents on the job at any one time.
“Under these extreme cuts, our agents will never be able to secure the borders and the American public will suffer,” the union said.