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FEMA Workers May Have To Pay Back Overtime Earnings

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The particularly disastrous scale of hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 had FEMA employees working extra hours -- but a federal law might prevent them from collecting the money they earned.

According to Bloomberg, some government workers have a cap on the amount of premium pay they can receive. Federal agencies are allowed to bill employees in future paychecks if they exceed that cap.

"This year’s unprecedented hurricane season led to a record-setting length of national activation," the agency said in an 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 November, FEMA emailed its employees an FAQ page detailing the agency's ability to charge employees for overtime hours exceeding the annual maximum. They noted that employees could still be ordered to work extra hours but would only receive the base rate.

"A bill will be determined and established for any premium pay amounts over the annual premium pay cap," the report read. "The employee will be notified and billed in 2018 for that amount."

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About 500 FEMA employees are reportedly being monitored because they are close to exceeding the cap. Those employees are exempt from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and are mostly higher-earning workers by the agency's standards.

The damage from Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria cost an estimated $200 billion over the course of 2017 -- a number surpassed only by Katrina in 2005. NBC reports that in addition to hurricanes, FEMA workers were dispatched to battle landslides, mudslides, winter storms, wildfires and floods.

Fears of exceeding available funds have been plaguing FEMA since the disasters first hit. FEMA administrator Brock Long told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the staff was "tapped out" and that "FEMA was never designed to be the first or only respondent in a disaster, but we often find ourselves in that situation."

There is a possible scenario in which FEMA employees could keep their overtime pay.

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"Federal law provides an agency with the ability to waive an overpayment ... it is within their discretion," said labor dispute attorney Jacob Statman to NBC.

Richard Loeb, who works as an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, doesn't think that's likely to happen.

"When employees are on notice that these overpayments may be made, then getting the waivers can be very difficult," he told NBC.

According to a FEMA spokesperson, the affected employees are primarily in management and not on the ground. Their pay ranges from about $88,000 to $131,000. The spokesperson said that the agency is expected to grant waivers.

Sources: Bloomberg, NBC News / Featured Image: Michael Rieger/FEMA / Embedded Images: Michael Rieger/FEMA, Bill Koplitz/FEMA

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