Some USAREUR staff could see LQA restored
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2013
STUTTGART, Germany — Some U.S. Army Europe civilians who were among the nearly 700 overseas workers the Defense Department says mistakenly received housing allowances could have those allowances restored following a recent Army decision.
The Army directive applies to employees who received a “management-directed reassignment” — such as the recent relocation of Army Europe’s headquarters from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden — as a result of transformation moves, according to Army officials in Europe.
It’s unclear how many employees will be affected by the decision, as human resources is still identifying those who are eligible and interested, USAREUR spokesman Mark Ray said in a statement.
In early 2013, DOD ordered an audit of locally hired personnel overseas in connection with a new interpretation of rules governing who is eligible to receive the Living Quarters Allowance, often referred to as housing allowance, which helps cover the cost of rent and utilities. In May, 659 workers were told they would be losing the benefit and, unless a special waiver was granted, they would be held financially liable for past payments received. Some of those debt notices, affecting mainly Europe- and Pacific-based staff, have tallied into six figures.
In the case of USAREUR, about 300 employees were identified in the DOD-directed audit. However, the command requested clarification from the Army on a range of regulations that govern housing allowances in situations where “management-directed relocations” are at issue.
Since many of the targeted USAREUR employees were determined to have “erroneously” received the housing allowance only after their management-directed reassignment, Department of the Army headquarters concurred with USAREUR that those employees could be granted the housing allowance if State Department and DOD requirements were satisfied, Ray said. The Army decision was reached in early December, according to USAREUR.
The overseas audit of locally hired employees was prompted by concerns within the Defense Department over a 2011 decision by the Office of Personnel Management involving a Stuttgart-based civilian. The decision stated that housing allowance can’t be awarded if an employee worked for more than one employer overseas, an apparent violation of single-employer regulations.
However, USAREUR’s efforts to get allowances restored for certain workers has rekindled some hope that DOD will take a second look at its decision to order the cancellation of housing benefits to the hundreds of other overseas employees. In particular, some workers contend that those who lost benefits in connection with the government’s efforts to convert contractor jobs to government positions also should be subject to review.
In 2009, the Obama administration issued a memorandum for U.S. agencies to seek savings by relying less on contractors to perform government work. That led to a flurry of activity within DOD, with some overseas commands converting certain contractor jobs into government service positions. The housing allowance benefit was used as a recruitment incentive.
Joni Thomas, an Air Force civilian at Ramstein Air Base, has said her position, along with many of her colleagues’ jobs, was converted from contractor status to government civilian status. Thomas said she would not have accepted the new position without the promise of the housing benefit to offset the high cost of housing overseas.
“Honor our original hiring agreements, which we signed in good faith with DOD. That is all we are asking for,” Thomas said.
So far, DOD has resisted such calls from workers as well as several senior military commanders and some lawmakers in Washington, all of whom have urged the department to restore housing allowances until workers conclude their overseas assignments.