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Customs and INS pay can't be compared, report says

Officers at the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) may perform similar duties, but their pay systems are very different and difficult to compare, according to a new study from the General Accounting Office. "Customs and INS have a wide variety of pay provisions directing how pay for officers is calculated…fundamental differences in how work is scheduled and how hours are counted also result in pay differences," said the report, "Customs and INS: Comparison of Officers' Pay (GAO-02-21). The report studied selected work schedules, shifts and pay for Customs and INS officers at the San Ysidro land border crossing near San Diego, Calif. during two pay periods in January and February 2001. The comparisons are only examples of a few work schedules, and do not represent Customs and INS operations nationwide, the report said. Customs and INS officers are responsible for checking every person coming through a U.S. port of entry for contraband and proper documentation, respectively. Although the agencies' missions are different, Customs and INS officers work closely together to prevent illegal aliens, drugs and contraband into the country. For overtime, Sunday and holiday work, Customs officers are generally paid for hours actually worked, while INS officers are paid based on the minimum period of time worked. But the differences in actual pay depend on each officer's specific work schedule, according to the report.

For example, for scheduled work on Sundays, Customs pays 1.5 times the hourly rate for actual hours worked, while INS provides two-days' pay for eight or fewer hours worked. A San Ysidro INS officer at the GS-11, Step 7 pay level who worked the 3 p.m. to midnight shift and two Sundays during the pay period studied would have earned $170 more under the Customs pay system. But a Customs officer at the same grade level who worked the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, including two Sundays and overtime, would have earned $781 more under INS pay provisions.

"The difference was primarily because the officer would have been paid 32 additional hours of overtime for 16 hours of overtime worked on two Sundays under INS provisions, in addition to pay for regularly scheduled hours," according to GAO.

Premium pay is also calculated differently for Customs and INS officers. For example, Customs officers can receive night pay at a higher rate for eight-hour shifts starting at noon, while night pay for INS officers is limited to shifts worked between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Customs officers can also receive an award between 3 and 5 percent of their basic pay for using a foreign language on the job, while foreign language proficiency is a condition of employment for INS officers. Customs and INS officials criticized the limited scope of the GAO study, saying it was not capable of making broad comparisons and conclusions on the different pay systems.

Unions that represent Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement officers have complained about unfair pay systems for years, but the issue has become more high-profile since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A provision in the House Customs authorization bill (H.R. 3129) that would have cut premium pay for Customs officers who work certain night shifts was scrapped. The bill is still in the House.