Workers not at fault on LQA
As the great economist Milton Friedman once wrote, “The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem itself.” Nowhere has this been illustrated as perfectly as in the mess concerning the recent audit of living quarters allowance for overseas federal employees. This could and should be an easy, painless fix and yet somehow the government is making things even worse with its proposed solution.
The Department of Defense has completely ignored the fact that those employees were fully screened by government-appointed “LQA cells” whose job was to determine eligibility based on regulations that existed at the time. The U.S. government is being duplicitous; officials admit that this was their error, yet they’re holding us responsible even if it means driving us all to professional and financial ruin.
They’re telling our chains of command and elected officials that the DOD will support a waiver for each of our individual “debts” since they were incurred through no fault of our own; what they’re not telling them is that before the government will even consider a waiver, we must first sign a legally binding document accepting the debt as valid and agreeing that we’re liable for paying it off. They’re placing the burden of proof on each of us to somehow prove that we didn’t purposely receive LQA in error, as if we should have somehow known that the civilian personnel experts were wrong when they told us we were eligible.
It is no small thing that several lawyers and senatorial and congressional offices that we’ve contacted have advised us not to sign any form admitting or accepting liability for this. Yet the government, in a stunningly heavy-handed move, has made it clear to us that if we attempt to contest or fight this injustice, they’ll immediately start collection by deducting 15 percent of our pay every pay period.
That the government would hold us accountable to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars for their error and then not even give us a chance to contest it is beyond unconscionable. It is despicable.
As overseas employees we have no unions to fight for us and the stress this has put on us and our families is practically unbearable. In addition to fighting the DOD, many of us must also battle supervisors at work who have no understanding of (or compassion for) what we are dealing with, which only adds to our stress. No business or corporation would ever be allowed to do something like this to its employees; neither should the U.S. government.
LQA decision broke a trust
A botched decision by the Department of Defense to claw back money from civilian employees retroactively calls into question the integrity of the entire U.S. government.
What follows is an accounting of a recent DOD decision to knowingly abandon and strand 659 DOD American civilian employees with their families, overseas.
The sacrificing of these 659 families is the most callous and well-thought-out abuse of administrative and moral responsibilities in recent times. It paves the road for DOD to walk away from employment appointments, payment of military retirements and other entitlements — not by changing rules and laws, but through collusion of government lawyers to “reinterpret” existing rules.
“Get it in writing” no longer has meaning and that should terrify every American.
In 2011, the Office of Personnel Management released a new interpretation of regulations that established eligibility criteria to receive living quarters allowances for locally hired government civilian employees overseas. Jessica Wright, an undersecretary of defense, directed the new policy interpretation be applied retroactively to all personnel.
On May 1, 2013, 659 individuals, almost all who are based in Europe and the Pacific, were informed they had “erroneously” received the LQA benefit under the now “new” reinterpretation of policy, some being paid for more than 20 years. They are now in debt to the government for past housing allowance payments with recorded debts up to a million dollars depending on length of employment. Additionally, any allowance derived from LQA eligibility, the most important being household goods movement back to the United States, was also canceled. The sad commentary, each of the 659 have a signed DOD appointment letter listing LQA and household goods movement as terms of their appointment.
In an era marked by “sequestration” and stagnant bureaucracy, a vacuum has emerged where our career senior government leaders used to have a moral compass. This entire issue could have been resolved quickly and without damnation with proper and early involvement of senior DOD leadership.
The frightening part is that did not happen. Instead, government lawyers and bureaucrats devised a scheme to avoid moral responsibility at the expense of civilian employees.
We measure the greatness of institutions by their resilience and tenacity under stress. At this crucial moment, when DOD has broken faith with its overseas civilian work force, it begs two questions: Where are our leaders? And more troubling, who will be the next group of Americans to be condemned en masse without rebuttal?
As secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel can’t have it both ways. Either he agrees with Wright that the 659 families must be held financially liable for a reinterpretation of policy (ignoring written commitments made to these Americans), or he doesn’t agree, in which case he takes immediate action. It is his most sacred fiduciary duty. In military terms it’s called “loyalty down.”
Stephen A. Ewell