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Cash-strapped FEMA could claw back overtime pay from staffers after busy year

Federal workers who plugged in long overtime hours during back-to-back disasters may have some of their pay clawed back, FEMA told employees.
Image: FEMA Administrator Brock Long
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long talks to reporters about the federal response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico outside the West Wing of the White House on Sept. 26, 2017 in Washington.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Federal disaster workers who plugged in long overtime hours during back-to-back emergencies this year may have some of their pay clawed back, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has told staffers.

FEMA blamed an "unprecedented hurricane season" for forcing it to abide by federal statutes that cap overtime earnings and allow the agency to garnish future paychecks, Bloomberg first reported Tuesday.

“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," FEMA said in an emailed statement, Bloomberg wrote.

Employees “may still be ordered to perform work without receiving further compensation,” according to an FAQ the agency reportedly sent employees in November.

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

Related: First water, then red ink: The rising cost of recovery

In 2017, workers for the agency were activated to provide response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria. Those major events resulted in an estimated $200 billion worth of damage combined, according to Moody's Analytics — the second highest total in the nation's history after Katrina. FEMA workers this year also responded to wildfire, flood, winter storms, landslides, and mudslides.

In a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting last month, FEMA administrator Brock Long testified that staff was "tapped out" because "FEMA was never designed to be the first or only respondent in a disaster, but we often find ourselves in that situation."

Approximately 500 FEMA employees are in danger of exceeding their cap this year and the agency is monitoring their status, according to the report.

One possible solution is available, notes Jacob Statman, an attorney who represents federal workers in labor disputes.

"Federal law provides an agency with the ability to waive an overpayment," whether the fault is the employee's or the agency's,” he told NBC News. "But it is within their discretion."

In general, however, federal agencies are loathe to grant such waivers unless it's their fault, Richard Loeb, an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, told NBC News.

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

Loeb also noted that the laws setting limits on what a federal employee may make at different levels have been on the books going as far back as the 1960s — and that Congress passed them for a reason.

"Let's say someone decided to work a year's worth of overtime. They would get the pay of someone twice their grade," he said.

Related: FEMA almost out of cash — and that was before Hurricane Harvey

A FEMA spokesperson told NBC News that the affected employees are almost all in management and generally not those, for example, working in the boats. The impacted ranks might make anywhere from $88,000 to $131,000, according to published federal pay schedules.

The spokesperson said the staffers are being approached and advised of repayment options, including having a small part taken out of their weekly paycheck.