The Federal Emergency Management Agency has informed employees that they worked overtime fighting a record wave of natural disasters in 2017 that may have to return some of their overtime.
Federal law limits some federal employees & # 39; premium payments and allows agencies to recover money paid in excess of the maximum of future paychecks. FEMA says that the extraordinary year of hurricanes, forest fires and other disasters means that it must take that step.
"This year's unprecedented hurricane season led to a record duration of national activation," the agency said in a statement sent by email. "Due to the long work hours needed to support disaster recovery and multiple storm response efforts, some employees have been affected by the maximum annual income limitation."
The agency sent employees a Frequently Asked Questions document that says that those who reach the annual limit due to the number of additional hours they have worked "can still be ordered to do work without receiving additional compensation," and " they will continue to receive their regular base pay regardless of whether they exceed the annual wage limit or not. "
Then, he said:" An invoice will be determined and established for any amount of premium payment over the annual premium payment limit and will be will notify the employee and will be charged in 2018 for that amount. "
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The problem arises in a broader context in FEMA. On November 30, the agency's administrator, Brock Long, told House Approp agency subcommittee that the staff was "crossed out" after the registration activation. "FEMA was never designed to be the first or only party sued in a disaster, but we often find ourselves in that situation," he said.
According to FEMA, there is a group of around 500 employees whose compensation is being monitored by the agency because they are at risk of exceeding the limit. Those employees are exempt from the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and are generally at the top of the agency's salary scale.
A FEMA employee, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said workers have expressed concern to the administration of the agency on the subject. Billing or billing personnel may reduce the willingness of FEMA employees or other National Security personnel to sign up for future deployments, he said.
The federal Office of Personal Management, which manages the human resources of the federal labor force, said the cap to annual compensation was out of their hands.
"The premium salary caps are legal, and OPM has no authority to waive or modify the premium salary caps," the agency said in a statement sent by email. 19659003] According to the law, the payment of the premium of an employee of the executive branch, which includes overtime, combined with the basic payment can not exceed the maximum basic payment rate for certain categories of employees. An email to FEMA staff on November 2 gave the example of a category of employees based in Washington, DC who this year earn a regular salary of $ 153,730; for those workers, Congress has limited the payment of the premium they can receive, even for overtime, at $ 7,636.40.
Along with the annual limit, there is also a ceiling on how much compensation overtime employees can receive each two-week period, but agencies have the discretion to waive that, since the Department of Homeland Security He did this year to relieve hurricanes, contributing to the annual issuance of caps.
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"Employees who have exceeded the annual salary limit will be contacted and given options on the overpayment process" said the agency to its employees. They can return the money through the payroll deduction or simply pay the total amount, according to the Q & A of November 3.
The House is scheduled to consider a bill that would raise the overtime limit for Secret Service agents, a third of whom had already reached the limit starting in August. statement, said the bill would be a "tremendous boost to employee morale."
The bill has not yet been voted in the Senate.
Homeland Security is not powerless to address the FEMA situation, said attorney Jacob Statman, who represents federal workers in employment disputes.
Although the agency can not waive the wage limit, a different law gives you the discretion not to apply the requirement that a particular employee pay excessive compensation, if the employee requests the resignation and the government. it determines that the compilation "would be contrary to equity and good conscience and not to the best interests of the United States."
When asked about that possibility, the Office of Personnel Management said in an e-mail that "the head of each agency has the authority to administer the excessive payment exemption authority" according to the statute.
FEMA did not comment on whether it would grant such exemptions if employees requested them.
Agencies generally hesitate to grant such wai According to Richard Loeb, a lawyer for the American Federation of Government Employees, in part because giving up reimbursements could get the scrutiny of his general inspectors.
Former OPM Director Donald Devine, who led the agency under President Ronald Reagan, said Congress should never have deprived the executive branch of authority to waive salary caps in the first place. "You need a certain amount of flexibility in terms of running the government," Devine said. "Unfortunately, Congress feels frustrated about something, usually trying to find some indirect way to do something."
– With the assistance of Christopher Flavelle