Overseas employees could face new debts in LQA dispute
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 19, 2013
STUTTGART, Germany — The Defense Department could soon issue a new wave of debt notices to hundreds of overseas civilians for a series of allowances that are intended to offset the costs of working overseas, military officials said.
In May, nearly 700 overseas workers learned that, without special waivers, they would be required to reimburse the government for all past housing allowances the DOD said they had been paid in error. Now DOD could seek repayment from those same employees on a host of other allowances, adding potentially thousands of dollars in additional debt.
“A number of overseas allowances have been identified as associated with LQA (Living Quarters Allowance),” said Steve Burghardt, a spokesman for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. “From a DFAS perspective, we understand that for those employees who have received LQA erroneously, these allowances would result in additional debts.”
The prospect of the new debt notices comes just days after U.S. Army Europe said it planned to restore housing allowances to some of its civilians who had been identified as getting allowances “erroneously.”
DFAS is awaiting final guidance from the DOD’s Office of Personnel and Readiness on how to proceed. Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesman on personnel matters, said it is premature to comment on how workers will be affected.
“The Department is in the process of developing policy guidance regarding associated debts that may have occurred as a result of the erroneous payment of LQA. Once finalized, it will be provided to the force, but at this time it would be inappropriate to comment on draft policy guidance,” Christensen said.
However, during a recent town hall meeting for Air Force personnel embroiled in the LQA dispute, staffers said they were informed by DFAS officials that six allowances were at issue: Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance, known as TQSA; student travel; post-differential; foreign transfer; separation maintenance; and home services.
With potential new debt being added on to past debts incurred, the pending loss of housing allowances, and uncertainly about finding a job stateside, the LQA battle is taking an emotional toll, workers said.
“It takes over your life,” said John Frederick a U.S. Air Forces Europe civilian who was among the 659 employees who were snared in an audit of locally hired personnel overseas. “It’s what you think about when you go to bed at night and what it’s you think about when you wake up in the morning.”
Meanwhile, employees say job prospects in the U.S. are limited, as the DOD is contending with a budget crunch. With some overseas staff also facing the loss of their relocation benefits along with the loss of housing allowances, the financial fallout continues to ripple, employees say.
Joni Thomas, a USAFE civilian who was among those “erroneously” given LQA, has been calling on Congress to intervene with a legislative solution. She is spokeswoman for a group organizing to get benefits restored.
“DOD’s approach to this wrong. It’s an incredible breach of trust that has occurred,” said Thomas. “We’re trying to fight DOD to change this. Not city hall, but the actual DOD. It is overwhelming.”