People are led down a staircase to a rescue boat after the flooding of Hurricane Harvey inundated their apartment complex on August 30, 2017 in Port Arthur, Texas. Image via Getty.

Some disaster relief responders from FEMA, who worked around the clock to respond to a record number of natural disasters in 2017 (including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma), say they have been told they might be asked to return part of their overtime pay to the federal government.

Bloomberg reports that due to a federal law capping maximum pay for some federal employees, FEMA told staffers they may withdraw funds from future paychecks of employees who have reached the maximum amount for 2017. “This year’s unprecedented hurricane season led to a record-setting length of national activation,” the agency told Bloomberg via email. “Due to the extended work hours involved in supporting disaster recovery and response efforts for multiple storms, some employees have been affected by the annual maximum earnings limitation.”

In other words, the hardest working responders might have to pay the government for having the privilege of wading through flooded streets and land devastated by wildfires to offer relief to Americans in dire circumstances.

Bloomberg explains how the law works:

Under the law, an executive branch employee’s premium pay — which includes overtime — combined with basic pay can’t exceed the maximum rate of basic pay for certain categories of employees. An email to staff from FEMA November 2 offered the example of a category of employees based in Washington, D.C. who this year get a regular salary of $153,730; for those workers, Congress has capped the premium pay they can receive, including for working extra hours, at $7,636.40.

Along with the annual cap, there is also a ceiling on how much overtime compensation employees can receive each two-week period, but agencies have the discretion to waive that one, as the Department of Homeland Security did this year for hurricane relief — contributing to the annual cap issue.

But the news for these employees gets worse: Last month, FEMA told employees that even those who’ve hit the maximum cap “may still be ordered to perform work without receiving further compensation.”

Advertisement

And... even worse! Employees will “continue to receive their regular base pay regardless of whether they exceed the annual premium pay cap or not,” but next year they will have to pay back any excess amount, again: “A bill will be determined and established for any premium pay amounts over the annual premium pay cap and the employee will be notified and billed in 2018 for that amount.”

I am really not sure how FEMA expects to maintain a workforce in the future, but the agency’s hands are tied by Republicans who want to slash its budget, and who ignore the fact that climate change is leading to more frequent disasters and extreme weather patterns.