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DOD civilians use 'strength in numbers' to fight LQA loss

Rik Thibodeau, a Vicenza, Italy-based Army civilian was among the nearly 700 overseas employees identified in a Defense Department review of housing allowance recipients it says received the payments erroneously. Thibodeau is now the administer of a new Facebook page where affected workers are sharing information and ideas aimed at getting DOD to reverse its decision to cut off housing payments. Without that allowance many workers said they never would have taken an overseas job in the first place.

STUTTGART, Germany — Soon after Pete McCollaum received word that the government was going to cut off his housing allowance and seek repayment for all past subsidies it says it paid him in error, he wanted to know how many others were in the same bank-busting boat.

“Do you know how to start a Facebook account,” McCollaum, a retired Special Forces officer, asked fellow Army civilian Rik Thibodeau, who received word last month that he too was losing the allowance due to government error.

Now, just two weeks after launching their Facebook page, the Vicenza, Italy-based civilians have more than 300 members on the social media site, which is proving to be a rallying point for Defense Department civilian workers stretching from Germany to Japan as they try to figure out their next move.

“People are finding out about it by word of mouth,” Thibodeau said. “We’re finding strength in numbers.”

Nearly 700 DOD civilians, almost all of whom are based in Europe and the Pacific, were flagged during a Defense Department’s audit of overseas housing allowance allotments. As a result, those who were erroneously receiving the benefit are now in debt to the government for all past housing allowance payments, which can be as much as $50,000 annually.

DOD has said it intends to forgive the debt if workers, who received the allowance through no fault of their own, apply for waivers. But there is a hitch: First those workers must sign a document that states they accept responsibility for the debt.

“Here’s the problem we have with the waiver — you first have to sign a form accepting the debt. But what happens if they don’t approve the waiver? What’s your recourse?” Thibodeau said. “There’s a lot of angst and anger.”

Instead, those affected say they should not be penalized for the government’s mistakes and that an exception to policy or grandfather clause should be established to allow employees to continue receiving their housing benefits.

“Allow us to finish our overseas tours under the terms of our contracts,” Thibodeau said. “Through attrition, the problem is solved. Nobody’s lives are hurt or ruined. It should be simple. It should be easy.”

Those affected run the professional gamut — DOD cybersecurity specialists, Combatant Command desk officers, communications specialists.

The DOD has not released how much money has been erroneously paid to workers through the years.

On the Facebook page, many say they feel a sense of betrayal. And they have supporters in high places.

Gen. James Thurman, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, said DOD’s decision is disrupting the military’s work on the Korean Peninsula at a critical time for national security.

“The problem was created by a misinterpretation of existing regulations. The net result of what is essentially a clerical error will be a significant loss of expertise and experience at a time Korea can least afford to have this impact,” Thurman wrote in an April 30 memorandum to Jessica L. Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Thurman added that the action also will cost DOD more money in the long term as the military sustains added relocation costs to bring in new LQA-eligible workers. Thurman said DOD should seek legislative relief to allow current workers to continue their jobs with the benefits they were first promised.

Meanwhile, the employees are calling on lawmakers to intervene on their behalf by pressuring the DOD to institute the grandfather clause.

“I fail to understand how so many HR professionals working in Europe, Korea & Japan misinterpreted the same regulations with respect to the LQA entitlement,” wrote one member of the Facebook group. “And if so, why are they not being held accountable for their actions? This action by my beloved (DOD) government, will ruin me financially!”

Added another member: “I grew up on the streets of Watts, California, not far from Crenshaw Blvd. Hard life. Hard people. I’m not easily moved. Things don’t normally faze me deep down. I can’t remember the last time I cried. The other night, when my oldest daughter asked me ‘Daddy, are we going to be OK? Will we be poor?’ I couldn’t look her in the eye.”

The Defense Department said that the best course of action for employees is to file waivers.

Regarding the employees’ quest for a grandfather clause, DOD officials said that since the department regards the original payments in violation of existing regulations, there is no way to institute such a clause.

 “Grandfathering is a practice that allows a practice that is no longer ‘legal’ to continue even after a law or rule changes that makes the practice not ‘legal’ anymore. An example would be allowing buildings built prior to a fire code change to not comply with the new fire code,” said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a DOD spokeswoman, in statement. “In this case, the payment of LQA was in error.”

DOD has granted one-year LQA extensions to all employees, a measure intended to provide some relief as give them time to find other work or living arrangements, Hull-Ryde said.

While DOD says those affected are to receive the extension, some workers say they’ve already had their allowances cut off. “It says right in my notification paperwork that I would continue getting LQA for 12 more months ... but I think we’ve all learned that ‘in writing’ means nothing anymore,” said one Facebook group member whose housing allowance already is missing in his paycheck.

Military officials in Europe said corrective measures have been taken to restore those housing payments to workers originally granted the year extension. Meanwhile, the Defense Department on Wednesday formally extended the one-year grace period to all 659 employees affected. Initially some of those workers had been determined ineligible for the one-year extension, however, DOD reversed course and decided to grant extensions to everyone.

It’s still unclear when the payments will restart for those workers, which in the case of Europe total about 140.

However, the grace period does little to resolve the larger problems, workers said.

“The extension of LQA for 12 months is not the whole story. Huge financial commitments (mortgages, college choices, auto purchases, negotiated salaries, amount of child support payments, credit ratings etc) were made based on the authorization of LQA,” said one affected worker on a Facebook posting.

Some workers say they also have been told they have lost their right to have their household goods shipped back to the U.S. since that benefit is connected to their housing allowance. With insufficient income to pay the rent in costly locales such as Germany and Japan, and not enough to move back to the U.S. — relocation can cost up to $15,000 — some workers have described themselves as “stranded.”

“The department is concerned about the effect cessation of LQA payments will have on morale and retention and understands that employees who have been receiving LQA have made life choices based upon their continued payment of it,” Hull-Ryde said.

Prior to notifying the affected workers, most of whom were informed by May 1, military officials had prepared a set of talking points for supervisors as they briefed those affected. The internal document, obtained by members of the Facebook group, cautioned that some workers could become suicidal.

“Should an employee appear that he/she may pose a threat to himself/herself/others, immediately alert your chain of command and designated emergency responders,” the document stated.

Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for USAREUR, said the internal document was meant to help guide supervisors working with affected employees and wasn’t meant for public consumption “because of the extremely personal nature of the contents.”

“It was intended to help prepare supervisors understand the potentially devastating effects of this news, and prepare the supervisor to help the employee through the initial shock,” Anderson said.

Meanwhile, many members of the Facebook group have fired off letters to members of Congress. They say they plan to keep the pressure on as they seek to get their benefits reinstated.

Some of the 659 affected workers were deemed ineligible for the benefit because they took a temporary nonappropriated fund job overseas while waiting to be hired for a regular government service position. According to DOD, workers hired under such conditions can be deemed ineligible. Others who worked for more than one employer overseas, such as two contractors, before accepting a government service post also are ineligible, according to DOD.

But if the rules regulating who is eligible for housing allowances are so convoluted and widely misunderstood by military commands, rank-and-file workers shouldn’t be the ones to suffer the consequences, members of the Facebook group contend.

“They should have focused more on getting a clear regulation,” said Benjamin Everson, a Stuttgart-based civilian who lost his housing allowance. “They’re trying to bandage the wound without fixing the problem.”

Many of those affected have spent careers navigating through the complex world of military regulations and have begun to do some digging. McCollaum, for example, unearthed a DOD regulation — Section 2773a of Title 10 of the United States Code — that states those who made the error can be held “pecuniarily liable” for accounting mistakes. DOD did not respond to a question about that regulation and whether it could shift the debt burden away from the 659 workers.

McCollaum is one the workers who is planning to fight to get his benefits restored, with the help of his new Facebook comrades, whom he likened to a military headquarters.

“We’re getting organized,” he said. “It’s hard to crack this nut all by yourself.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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