Civilians still grapple with bureaucratic mistakes over LQA benefit
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 10, 2013
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — For more than a year, the military has wrangled over what to do about the millions of dollars in housing allowances mistakenly given to hundreds of civilian employees overseas.
Almost all of the erroneous payments, some of which went on for years, stemmed from administrative errors and the misinterpretation of regulations, according to officials, and were not the fault of the employees who received them.
Top military commanders in Europe and the Pacific, as well as the secretary of the Army and members of Congress, have weighed in on the mistakes, bringing an unusual level of scrutiny to a generally mundane aspect of military bureaucracy.
Unfortunately for Brooke Hamilton, mistakes still are being made.
In July, the Army moved Hamilton to Germany to work as a server administrator for the 69th Signal Battalion in Grafenwöhr, a major training hub for American and NATO forces in Europe.
According to the job offer the 14-year Navy veteran accepted in May, her compensation package was to include a salary of more than $66,000, a cost-of-living allowance and a living quarters allowance to pay for her rent and utilities.
But two weeks after she arrived in Germany, the office responsible for vetting her application and drawing up her orders told Hamilton she didn’t qualify for the housing allowance.
That office, the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center in Grafenwöhr, also informed her that she wouldn’t be compensated for the roughly $6,000 in lodging, laundry and food expenses she’s racked up so far as a result of her move from Baltimore to Germany — despite having told her earlier that those expenses would be covered.
“It’s pretty jacked up is what it is,” Hamilton said by phone from Grafenwöhr, where she still is waiting for a resolution. “I could use a whole lot of other words, but I’ve been refraining.”
The reason for denying her LQA and other expenses, according to the justification provided her by the Grafenwöhr CPAC, is that by regulation, she is a “local hire.”
That’s because she applied for the job in November while working in Afghanistan as a contractor providing IT support to American forces.
She left the job in early December to return to the States, and was in the U.S. when she interviewed for the job in January and when the human resources office in Grafenwöhr gave her a tentative job offer.
But according to officials, the only determining factor for LQA is where she was physically living at the time she applied for the position.
It doesn’t matter that Hamilton informed the Army that she was in Afghanistan on her Living Quarters Allowance Questionnaire before receiving the final job offer.
It doesn’t matter that after she submitted the questionnaire, a human resources specialist at the CPAC asked her for additional paperwork from her job in Afghanistan, sayingit was needed “for LQA determination,” Hamilton said.
It doesn’t matter that, apparently satisfied, Grafenwöhr’s CPAC in mid-May sent Hamilton a final job offer that included LQA.
What matters, according to the Army, is that she checked a box indicating she was physically residing in the U.S. when she applied for the job on Nov. 10, even though she was in Afghanistan at the time. She checked the box, she said, “because as a contractor … you’re not a resident of Afghanistan. You’re living on post. Everything is furnished – your billeting, meals, travel – everything is furnished by the government. So, no. I didn’t consider myself ‘residing’ in Afghanistan.”
She’d also maintained her Baltimore home while in Afghanistan, she said.
So two months after receiving the offer and two weeks after arriving in Germany for her new job, she was told she’d been moved to Europe in error and wasn’t eligible for the entitlements spelled out on her orders.
In an Aug. 1 memo to Hamilton, the acting director of Grafenwöhr’s CPAC, Rhonda Goodell, wrote that a Defense Department instruction on overseas allowances and differentials “does not leave any room for interpretation on this matter.”
Because she applied from Afghanistan, Hamilton can’t be a U.S. hire, and therefore is “considered a person recruited outside of the United States, or local hire,” Goodell wrote.
Regulation allows LQA for some overseas hires, but Hamilton didn’t meet the criteria, according to the memo.
Human resources officials in Grafenwöhr and their bosses in Kaiserslautern referred all questions about the case to the Civilian Human Resources Agency headquarters.
“The error regarding Ms. Hamilton’s Living Quarters Allowance (LQA) entitlement occurred because of an oversight in reviewing information she provided,” Paul D. Prince, an Army human resources spokesman at the Pentagon, wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes. “Subsequently, this resulted in a human resources (HR) determination that she was entitled to LQA, when in fact, she was not.”
Lt. Col. Enrique “Rick” Maldonado, Hamilton’s commander at the 69th, said the mistakes being made surrounding LQA have “caused some consternation among the workforce.”
In Hamilton’s case, “I thought it would have been reviewed, that the determination should have been made or would have been made before she got here,” Maldonado said in a phone interview. “But I guess that didn’t happen.”
According to Prince, Army human resources recently reviewed “processes for determining LQA prior to the job offer being made and have instituted changes” to standardize the review of LQA determinations, reduce the likelihood of errors and strengthen the quality review process of all LQA determinations.
“Our goal is to prevent errors from happening completely,” Prince wrote.
Officials acknowledge mistakes were made in Hamilton’s case, and they’re scrambling to find a favorable solution.
One option under consideration, according to emails Hamilton provided, is to reassign her outside of Grafenwöhr but within Europe. That, according to an email from the acting director of the Europe region of the Army’s Civilian Human Resources Agency, “would entitle her to full overseas benefits,” including LQA.
But finding her another job could take weeks or months – nobody seems to know, Hamilton said. In the meantime, her Army lodging bill grows bigger by the day.
She knows that regardless of what’s decided, she won’t be staying in Grafenwöhr.
“I’m just going to wait for them to find me another job,” she said. “And I’m applying for other jobs while I wait.”