Dec 6, 2017, 8:38 PM ET

FEMA staffers could be billed for overtime after hurricanes


Over the past three months, FEMA Disaster Operations Director Marty Bahamonde has been home just once, for a two-week stretch.

He's spent the other dozen weeks amidst calamity.

Bahamonde deployed to Texas on Aug. 24, as Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston. Six weeks later, he flew straight to Puerto Rico, the island struggling to cope with widespread devastation following back-to-back hurricanes, Irma and then Maria.

With much of the commonwealth still without power, he slept on a cot alongside hundreds of other workers inside a convention center, taking cold showers and bunching up spare clothing to use as a pillow.

Now, FEMA says he and hundreds of other FEMA employees who pulled double-digit days during this year's massive storms may be forced to pay back some of their overtime pay.

Under federal law, government staffer's annual earnings are capped — and following a record-breaking hurricane season, "several hundred" staffers have butted up against their maximums, FEMA confirms to ABC News.

“Due to the extended work hours involved in supporting disaster recovery and response efforts for multiple storms, the annual cap could affect as many as several hundred employees. The potentially affected employees are all exempt from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and are generally employees towards the upper end of the agency’s pay scale,” FEMA’s spokesperson told ABC News in an emailed statement.

Unless Congress passes an emergency waiver, FEMA's human resources told employees, they'll be required to reimburse FEMA for excess overtime, either via payroll deductions or one lump sum.

Though they've since moved to hotels, the team in Puerto Rico has been working "12 hours a day, seven days a week" for months, Bahamonde told ABC News. Faced with that devastation, "you can't walk away."

Faced with its longest continuous activation period to date, the agency's staff is "tapped out," Administrator Brock Long testified before Congress last month.

But when the exhausted staff in Puerto Rico heard they might not be compensated for their long hours, they discussed it briefly -- most have families back home and bills to pay -- then doubled their focus on the mission, Bahamonde said.

The entire team "showed up to work and kept working, because that's what you do," he told ABC News. "That's what you do when people need your help."

News - FEMA staffers could be billed for overtime after hurricanes

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  • Famj Jensen

    What a slap in the face. Maybe if they had guns or military uniforms the fascists in government would notice them. Such a shame.

  • Nathan Broussard

    interesting article, and yet the US Forestry, Department of Interior, National Park Services and Bureau of Land Management continue to pay for my overtime pay, this year alone I have grossed over five hundred grand in overtime compensation not including my average three hundred grand in pay and bonuses, if it wasn't for me finding tax shelters and off shore accounts I'd have a enormous tax liability.

  • Alex Ross

    They worked hard, and the rich get a raise. SAD.

  • Billy Bob Smith

    This is what happens when you apply a blanket rule to stop excessive, unnecessary, overtime by shady management. Too many people allow employees to run up overtime in their last few years to boost their pension. This law was put in to stop it, but you obviously catch people who truly deserve the overtime pay. That's how government works. One person does something stupid, everybody pays.

  • secondlook

    Well, I'd walk if they don't fix this. The entire staff should just take a hike.

  • JuPMod

    This rule is stupid. These people were working overtime for a good reason in helping people. It's rude for the government to ask to pay back their overtime pay they rightfully deserve. Can you imagine the next natural disaster and workers will not help due to have reach their work hour limit? "I'm sorry, I can't rescue you due that if I do I would be working overtime and I do not want to end up paying back the government for overtime."

  • Cybersaw

    During a natural disaster, overtime rules should NOT apply. If these personnel are required to work 12-14hr, or longer days, then they deserve to be fairly compensated. It probably wouldn't hurt to hire more FEMA staff, so excessive overtime is limited.

  • Dicazi

    These people are just as important as the Secret Service, which also has the ridiculous overtime limit rules.
    God bless them for continuing, but there should be no doubt. They should get paid.

  • Colmyn Cannary

    What with the haphazard staffing cuts and hiring freezes that were put
    into place throughout many federal agencies this year, one would think a
    focus in recruiting more FEMA employees would be a rather important
    item on the budget since there's only been an increase in nationally
    declared emergencies over the past few decades.

    There's obviously been no problem with raising the recruiting efforts for Border Patrol and the
    Air Force, even though those have their own limitations resulting in
    lowering the standards for applications and even forcing retirees to
    come out of retirement.