Adding Federal Pay and Benefits for ATF Employees by Falsifying Job Classifications

As a result of a whistleblower revelation, ATF was found to have paid tens of millions to employees by improperly classifying their jobs.

All federal agencies have human resources (HR) positions (smaller ones may use HR specialists from other agencies).

No one in my memory would think to classify these jobs as law enforcement positions. Putting employees in a job that was not classified correctly as was done in one agency provides an entitlement to benefits to which they were not entitled to receive.

Some unique benefits are provided to law enforcement personnel that are not available to other federal employees. Some of these benefits include:

  • Enhanced retirement benefits: Law enforcement personnel can retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years of service. They also receive a higher percentage of their basic pay as an annuity and a special retirement supplement until they reach 62.
  • Higher basic pay: Law enforcement personnel are classified under a special pay system that provides higher pay rates than the general schedule. They also receive additional pay adjustments based on their geographic location and availability for unscheduled duty.
  • Higher premium pay: Law enforcement personnel can receive overtime pay, night differential pay, Sunday premium pay, and holiday premium pay at higher rates than other federal employees. They are also exempt from the biweekly and annual caps on premium pay that apply to most federal employees.

These benefits are designed to attract and retain qualified law enforcement personnel who perform vital and hazardous duties for public safety and security.

ATF Unlawfully Paying Tens of Millions in Wrongful Benefits

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been found to have overpaid a number of employees by tens of millions of dollars.

According to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), two whistleblowers from ATF’s human resources office revealed that ATF was unlawfully providing law enforcement pay and benefits to agents and investigators that were not in law enforcement positions. Some of the employees receiving these benefits were in the human resources office.

According to OSC, the positions were intentionally misclassified as law enforcement jobs. This resulted in ATF overpaying up to $20 million over a five-year period.

The actual cost may have been much higher as the unlawful classification scheme was a common practice at the agency for much longer than the five-year time frame reviewed by investigators.

OSC referred the allegations to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM was conducting an ongoing audit. OSC ultimately adopted most of OPM’s findings.

OPM “conclude[d] that ATF leadership had acted outside of merit system principles and demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and regulations that implement Federal human capital management policies and practices.”

In total, 108 employees were found to be in non-law-enforcement positions who were improperly provided Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP) and enhanced retirement benefits. ATF is contesting the designation of some of the positions as misclassified.

As of March 2023, 36 of the employees who working in positions that were not properly classified had been reassigned. 14 more employees had retired.

OPM suspended the authority of ATF to classify law enforcement positions. ATF is also now updating position descriptions to accurately reflect their actual job duties. As of March 2023, 36 of the employees who held misclassified positions had been reassigned and another 14 had retired.

ATF’s Internal Affairs Division is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding the implementation of illegal policies and practices.

There is no indication if OPM or ATF will look at the benefits that have been improperly paid to the employees who have retired with benefits only open to law enforcement personnel or who have otherwise been collecting improper pay and benefits as a result of the misclassification.

Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner provided this quote in a press release:

While I find the report to be reasonable, progress toward full resolution has been slow, which may be attributable to the long-standing nature of the problems and the entrenched culture reinforcing ATF’s practices. I am pleased that OPM continues to monitor progress in implementing required corrective actions, and I urge ATF’s internal affairs to hold the responsible parties accountable. 

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47