Lawmakers Want to Overhaul Pay and Benefits for Border Patrol, Firefighters

Border agents patrol a beach in 2012. Border agents patrol a beach in 2012. United States Customs and Border Protection

Congress is considering sweeping legislation to overhaul pay and benefits for two specialized groups of federal employees.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday debated the 2013 Border Patrol Agent Pay Reform Act, which would eliminate the controversial Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime pay supplement. The bipartisan bill would attempt to standardize pay for Border Patrol agents and prevent them from double dipping into overtime compensation when the extra hours are unplanned.

Under the legislation, introduced by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and John McCain, R-Ariz., Border Patrol agents would be able to choose to work 100, 90 or 80 hours per two-week period. Any amount worked between 80 hours and the schedule they choose would be compensated as overtime, or time and a half. And any amount exceeding the total agreed upon hours in a pay period -- which BP management and advocates said occurs regularly and allows agents to remain in pursuit of criminals when their shift ends -- would be rewarded through compensatory time off.

Border Patrol pay came under fire after a 2013 Office of Special Council report found many employees were abusing overtime privileges. Members of both parties criticized Homeland Security Department witnesses at a House hearing in November for their inability to answer questions about overtime claims by employees. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who authored a companion pay reform bill in the lower chamber, called overtime abusers “desk jockeys” who “milk the system and steal from Americans.”

Ronald Vitiello, the Border Patrol’s deputy chief, said at the Senate hearing Monday the bill would ensure both cost savings and continued mission accomplishment.

The National Border Patrol Council, the border agents’ union, has admitted the current pay structure is “bloated,” and endorsed the new proposal. NBPC President Brand Judd said on Monday BP officers are “sacrificing a lot,” and none of his members are happy about cutting their take-home pay. The union has also said, however, the proposal is preferable to alternative plans that would offer no additional compensation when an agent worked more than 10 hours in one day.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking member, raised several concerns with the bill, including the apparent unfairness with BP employees receiving guaranteed overtime pay when the rest of the federal workforce does not. Tester said the bill would ultimately improve the agency’s effectiveness and called for the committee to vote on the bill as soon as possible. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee’s chairman, said he and Coburn would decide on a date for a vote later this week.

Federal Firefighters

Lawmakers also are considering several measures that would reform compensation for federal firefighters, as well as the funding process for fire suppression.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s panel on emergency management, last week introduced a bill that would give federal firefighters more flexibility in swapping shifts.

“Across the country, municipal firefighters are able to work out changes in their schedules among themselves, with supervisors’ approval,” Begich said. “The skills men and women learn during training to become a firefighter, smoke jumper or hot shot team member are invaluable and we need to do our part in making sure that they have the flexibility they need to carry out their critical mission.”

Begich held a hearing last week to promote his bill, as well as legislation to reform hiring practices for federal firefighters. Many firefighters are hired initially as temporary seasonal workers, and their accrued time therefore does not qualify them for merit promotions.

Tester in the Senate and Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., in the House introduced the Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act, which would ease the promotion and hiring process for federal firefighters and employees at other land management agencies, such as the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. The bill attempts to reduce attrition while fostering a more experienced workforce.

Lawmakers are also considering a bill to overhaul how federal firefighting is funded. Unlike other catastrophic natural events, suppression of large fires does not receive prefunding through appropriations. Instead, costs are taken from other Interior Department and U.S. Fire Service accounts in a process known as “fire borrowing.”

This amounts to “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” National Federation of Federal Employees president William Dougan said at Thursday’s hearing. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would shift funding so fire suppression costs were covered by the same account that funds other natural disaster relief efforts.

President Obama endorsed changes to the funding structure in his fiscal 2015 budget blueprint. 

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