KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Pentagon has issued a policy advisory that appears to strike down an interpretation of the term “U.S. hire” long used by the U.S. Army to determine living quarters allowances for U.S. civilians hired to work overseas.
The advisory, put out by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy, states that short-term absences from the U.S. are not enough to render someone ineligible for the allowances, which can total more than $40,000 a year to cover the cost of housing.
Army officials did not respond to questions about whether the clarification, issued in response to a case involving an army civilian in Grafenwöhr, Germany, will apply retroactively to civilians hired under the Army’s apparently now-invalidated interpretation of Defense Department rules.
The advisory states:
“Temporary absences from the U.S. for reasons such as vacations, temporary duty assignments (including the private industry equivalent) or deployments by Reservists and National Guard members do not alter a person’s ‘U.S. hire’ status... The phrase ‘physically resided permanently in the United States’ does not preclude one who temporarily left the U.S. for the reasons listed above from being eligible to receive LQA.”
Brooke Hamilton, whose case was the impetus for the advisory, should begin receiving her living quarters allowance next month.
The Army had long interpreted the Defense Department’s definition of “U.S. hire” to include only those applicants who were physically present in the U.S. throughout the entire hiring process. Anyone who left the U.S. or its territories at any point in the process — when the person applied, interviewed or accepted the job — was considered a “local hire.”
Hamilton was in Afghanistan when she applied for her current job working for the Army in Grafenwöhr. Though human resources personnel told her she’d qualify for a living quarters allowance when they offered her the job, they reneged when she arrived in Germany on the basis that she had been in Afghanistan when she applied. Rather than a U.S. hire, she was categorized as a local hire.
Hamilton appealed that interpretation all the way to the top civilian personnel official in the Pentagon and received word in late October that she would qualify for the allowance after all.
The memo telling her of the decision included portions of the advisory clarifying the term “U.S. hire.” Some overseas personnel have been awaiting the advisory’s release since late October to see if it might apply to them as well.
The Defense Department provided a copy of the document to Stars and Stripes on Nov. 20, nearly a month after the newspaper first requested it and two months after it was signed.
An information paper accompanying the advisory explains that temporary duty — or TDY as it’s called in the military — “is by nature a temporary event and, as such, is not the determining factor for LQA eligibility if an application for a vacancy is submitted while TDY outside of the U.S.”
It continues: “The determining factor is whether one permanently physically resides in the U.S. but for the TDY event.”
Andrew Mattox, an Army civilian whose situation is nearly identical to Hamilton’s, is cautiously hopeful that the clarification will be applied retroactively to similar cases.
“The memo articulates basically the same thing that I’ve been trying to tell them the whole time — temporary duty means temporary,” he said by phone Friday.
In 2010, Mattox deployed to Iraq on a six-month assignment from Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, where he worked full time as an Army civilian. He arrived in Iraq in the midst of the drawdown. When his deployment was nearly up, the war was nearly over. His superiors asked him to stay on a few extra months to ride it out to the end, he said, and he agreed.
It was during that time that a job opened up in Pirmasens, Germany. Mattox applied and, like Hamilton, was back in the U.S. when he got a job offer. Unlike in Hamilton’s case, though, Mattox was told from day one that he wouldn’t qualify for LQA.
He was sure that was wrong from the moment the job was offered him, he said, and he protested from the beginning. He took the job anyway, expecting the issue to be resolved.
But two years later, he’s received nothing but a series of responses reaffirming the Army’s original decision. The U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, the Department of the Army and the U.S. Army Europe Office of the Inspector General all agreed with the original justification provided by human resources.
A memo to Mattox from the USAREUR IG explicitly states that applicants for overseas jobs “must be physically present in the United States during the entire recruitment process, i.e., application, selection and acceptance of the position” to qualify for LQA.
That language is not in the Defense Department Instruction cited by the IG; rather it is the IG’s interpretation of the instruction.
Mattox is not surprised that interpretation was wrong all along, but he is nonetheless surprised that the Pentagon torpedoed the Army’s long-held interpretation after defending it for so long.
“It’s just amazing,” he said. “I don’t understand where the 180 (degree turn) came from.”
Every agency he dealt with in trying to resolve his case over the last two years was “so adamant about this,” he said. “And now all of a sudden it’s just like the scales fell off somebody’s eyes and they were like, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ I just don’t get it.”
“I’m sure there’s others out there that are in the same boat as I am that are just hoping and praying for some mercy here,” Mattox said. “It’s so frustrating.”