• August 21, 2014

Loss of housing assistance impacts locals overseas

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Posted: Friday, April 4, 2014 4:30 am

Ernie Woodard took a job in 2010 with the Defense Department in Germany with the promise of a housing allowance. Now he’s being told that was a mistake, and not only is the government pulling his allowance May 14, the change is retroactive. He now owes the $83,000 officials said he was mistakenly paid.

“They can waive that debt, but in the future I won’t get the housing allowance they promised me when I was hired. I won’t get the allowance I thought I had when I financed the home I was in,” Woodard said during a phone interview from Germany.

While he has lived overseas since retiring from the Army there in 2010, he also owns a home in Copperas Cove.

He is one of about 706 Americans working overseas who will be losing the living quarters allowance, known as LQA, next month. The Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management claim it was a mistake in authorization to begin with. These civilians, many of whom are veterans, work for the Army, Air Force and Navy at commands covering Africa, Asia and Europe, and are based in Germany, South Korea, Bahrain, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

“Employees received LQA based on an agency error and there is no indication of fraud, misrepresentation, fault or lack of good faith,” read a statement from the personnel office and Headquarters United States Air Force Europe.

These employees made one final plea to Congress on Thursday as the allowance deadline nears. In a letter, the DOD Overseas Civilian Employees Committee urged the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to ask Government Accountability Office investigation to review DOD’s decision to revoke their LQA.

In early 2013, DOD ordered an audit of locally hired personnel overseas in connection with a new interpretation of rules governing who is eligible to receive the allowance, which helps cover the cost of rent and utilities. Not all overseas employees are impacted, and those who are can sign a waiver acknowledging the debt and asking for it to be waived.

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, who represents Copperas Cove, and his staff listened to his affected constituents and agree with them, he said. He also encouraged them to sign the waiver.

“If you were in the private sector like I am, and you didn’t tell the truth to customers you’d get in the trouble for that,” he said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. “It goes to fact that nobody trusts the government. ... It’s totally extreme. It’s not fair. If we say something we need to do it.”

His concern now is getting employees squared away by signing the debt waiver. From what he’s seen, everyone who signed the waiver has had their debt waived.

Moving family

Employees were given a year to prepare for the loss of the housing allowance. For Wiley J. Robinson, a Texan and veteran of Fort Hood, that means moving his family of four from a house to an apartment.

“What I have to do now is take my retirement and pay rent,” he said.

One of the challenges that come from living overseas, aside from the increased cost of living is also the exchange rate, Woodard said. They are paid by the American government in dollars, which are worth about 70 percent of a euro.

One Texas-based worker who asked not be named for fear of repercussion, said he never would have taken his current job if LQA wasn’t included.

“So many life decisions would have been made differently,” he said. “First off, I probably never would have accepted the job, because the job I had before, I was making more money. The other big attractions were the housing was paid and stability of being with the government. Those were two things at time I thought I really needed to go get. ... I took a pay cut because over the long term I was happy with stability.”

He’s now on the hook for more than $155,000 in housing allowance, and hasn’t signed the waiver yet.

He said he lives with constant anxiety and worry.

He said he finds himself rethinking all the decisions he’s made since taking his job five years ago — the colleges his children attend, the vacations they’ve taken and any other time he spent money he now feels he should have saved.

“In the beginning I really had some hope,” he said. “I hate to say it, but I’ve kind of lost hope. They are so capable of reinterpreting regulations and nobody can put them in their place or do the right thing.”

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