WASHINGTON -- Border Patrol agents would be willing to give up time-and-a-half overtime pay if it meant they would not have to be furloughed as part of mandated federal spending cuts, their union president testified Friday.
National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd told a House subcommittee that in exchange for giving up overtime pay, agents would want a two-step increase in base pay. But Judd said the government would still come out ahead.
"The reform I have just proposed saves tax dollars, reduces overtime pay and brings about financial certainty to both the Border Patrol agents and the agency alike," Judd said to the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.
Judd said agents would lose about $7,000 each in overtime while only getting back about $4,000 in the base-pay increase. He said the change could save the government $40 million in the first year and $125 million annually after that.
Customs and Border Patrol officials declined to comment Friday on the specifics of the union's proposal, saying they are still looking at the best way to deal with the cuts that could come under the so-called budget sequestration.
But Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, said the union's proposal merits consideration.
"I think we need to take a hard look at it, both the department and the Congress, to see how it might better improve our border security and give some certainty to agents and to our efforts to secure the homeland," Barber said at the hearing.
Judd repeated assertions that furloughs or reductions of overtime hours would simply create holes in the border that smugglers would exploit to get people and drugs into the country. He said such a move would make the country less safe and erase the progress the Border Patrol has made over the last several years.
Judd said agents routinely work overtime now to deal with crime on the border. Agents get regular pay for the first 85.5 hours they work over a two-week period and then time-and-a-half up to 100 hours. His plan calls for straight time instead of time-and-a-half.
Agents are paid half-time after working 100 hours in a pay period, which Judd said happens often.
"You're already getting us on a very cheap wage," Judd said. "What we're proposing is an even cheaper overtime system."
The proposal is in response to the sequester cuts that were scheduled to result in furloughs of Border Patrol agents this month. Those furloughs were put on hold after Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a budget resolution March 26 that funded government operations for the rest of this fiscal year.
The cuts are still coming, but Customs and Border Protection is taking a second look at where to cut. The agency has not indicated how long the reprieve might last.
"CBP is re-evaluating previously planned furloughs and de-authorization of administratively uncontrollable overtime and will postpone implementation of both at this time," agency spokesman Michael Friel said Friday in an email.
Judd said the union hopes to get its pay proposal attached as an amendment to immigration reform bills that are expected to be introduced soon in the House and Senate.
Furloughs and cutting overtime hours would be equivalent to reducing the patrol's workforce by 20 percent, Judd said, a change that smugglers would be sure to exploit.
He said the advantage of the union proposal is that it provides consistency and maintains the workforce currently stationed on the border. While other methods of patrolling - such as unmanned aircraft - are helpful, Judd said there still need to be agents on the ground to make arrests.