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Congress Weighs Reversing Cut to Defense Workers’ Travel Benefits

Both chambers are considering changes to reimbursement rates

Ayotte (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ayotte (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers in both chambers could be poised to exempt Navy shipyard workers — and maybe all Defense Department workers — from a recent cut to their travel benefits.  

The two-year old reduction in reimbursement rates for long-term travel is taking money out of the pockets of Defense employees and even hurting military readiness, say congressional critics, who have the backing of a coalition of unions and hotels.  

In an interview Tuesday evening, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, expressed confidence that the committee’s forthcoming fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill will make an exception to the policy for shipyard workers. Hours earlier, she had filed stand-alone legislation to that effect. Ayotte represents the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which straddles the border of her state and Maine.  

“We just keep continuously hearing about this: the negative impact on the shipyards,” Ayotte said. “I think we’ll be able to make this case to the members of the committee as we do the markup on the authorization.”  

A bipartisan coalition in the House wants to go further and roll back the policy for all Defense workers, not just shipyard employees. Provisions on this issue could turn up in the defense authorization bill, the Pentagon appropriations measure or both, members say.  

Matthew Allen, a Pentagon spokesman, says Defense leaders are open to making exceptions to the policy and have already permitted Special Operations Command to reimburse workers more for meals in certain remote locations on a case-by-case basis.  

However, a January request for a waiver for shipyard workers from Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, remains under review in the Navy secretariat, officials said.

Fixing ships far from home

   

At issue are so-called per diems for long-term travel, payments made in lieu of direct reimbursements. The per diem rates express the expected daily cost of lodging, food and incidentals, and the rates vary from region to region.  

Under the 2014 change, workers who travel between 31 and 180 days saw their per diems cut 25 percent, while those who left home for more than 180 days witnessed a 45 percent cut.  

The Pentagon brass’s assumption was that this would not add to workers’ expenses because those on the road for long periods could find housing that costs less than a hotel and could stock up on groceries and cook at home rather than eat at restaurants.  

But housing is not easily found in some locales, critics say. As for food, shipyard maintenance employees fixing a ship far from home often work 12 hours or more per day for long stretches, and they don’t have a lot of time to shop and cook at home, Hilarides told Ayotte’s subcommittee on Tuesday.  

Many of these workers are either not volunteering for long-term travel or are not staying on trips as long as needed, as their union contracts require that they volunteer for such trips, he said.  

“This policy has already had a negative impact on the Naval Shipyards’ ability to effectively and efficiently conduct Navy ship maintenance,” Hilarides wrote in his Jan. 19 request for a waiver.  

The request is addressed to Anthony Kurta, a top Pentagon personnel policy official, but the letter has yet to officially make it to Kurta’s desk because the document is stuck at the Navy’s Office of Civilian Human Resources, officials said.

Bicameral push

   

Congress may move more quickly.  

Seven senators who represent Navy shipyards and who serve on the defense authorizing or appropriating committees wrote Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter in February requesting a waiver for ship employees.  

At Tuesday’s hearing before Ayotte’s subcommittee, Mike Rounds, R-S.D., indicated that he, too, is on board — which Ayotte said suggests support is broader than just shipyard states.  

In the House, 36 members wrote defense appropriators on March 15 asking them to block the new policy across the board, not just for shipyard workers or any other subset.  

“While we all applaud the Department of Defense for working to find initiatives for cost savings and creating efficiencies, we must do our best to ensure that any solutions resulting from this do not negatively affect the personnel or readiness of our national defense sector,” the House members said.  

One House bill would “prohibit any reduction in the amount of the per diem allowance to which members of the uniformed services or civilian employees of the Department of Defense are entitled based on the duration of temporary duty assignments or official travel.” That measure was written by Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and co-sponsored by 33 others from both parties.  

Last year, Hawaii Democrat Mark Takai, a member of House Armed Services, succeeded in appending to the committee’s fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill a provision that would undo the cut to reimbursement rates across the board. But House and Senate conferees writing the bill’s final version diluted the provision into a requirement for a study.  

This year, Takai plans to try again. He’s promising multiple amendments and efforts on both the authorizing and appropriating bills.  

“Though the DoD created this policy to achieve cost savings, it has actually resulted in higher inefficiency and damaged the morale of our workforce,” Takai says.  

Contact Donnelly at JDonnelly@cq.com or on Twitter @johnmdonnelly

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