Watchdog: Follow the Money

USDA spends $4 million on time clocks, doesn't know how long food inspectors work

Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Michal Conger,Agriculture,Accountability,Follow the Money

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials spent $4 million on a revolutionary workplace innovation this year: a clock that measures time worked in one-minute increments.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service uses an "outdated" payroll system that measures employees' hours in 15-minute increments, meaning FSIS doesn't know exactly how long its employees actually work, according to a recent report by the USDA inspector General.

FSIS in turn may be charging slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants for time inspectors never worked.

Between the inaccurate time clocks and a payroll process that requires hours to be entered manually each pay period into two different systems, FSIS's payroll and billing is a tangled mess. The discrepancy between the two systems meant FSIS incorrectly charged slaughterhouses for millions of dollars for overtime in 2011 and 2012, according to the IG.

An IG analysis found more than 162,000 hours originally recorded in WebTA, the system used to log inspector hours, never showed up in Feebill, used to bill slaughterhouses for inspectors' time. The discrepancy may have cost the agency as much as $10.6 million, according to the IG.

But the reverse problem also happened, complicating things further. More than 72,000 hours recorded in Feebill weren't recorded in WebTA, meaning the agency may also have overbilled slaughterhouses for as much as $4.7 million.

FSIS said its new time clock system, appropriately called Actual Time Automation, will enable accuracy by measuring time by the minute, electronically logging time worked and automatically reconciling employee hours between WebTA and Feebill. The $4 million will pay for the purchase and installation of new time clocks at about 500 inspection plants around the country, as well as upgrading FSIS software.

"FSIS will also be able to bill plants for only the overtime that is actually performed, since the new T&A (time and attendance) system is capable of recording time in one-minute increments," according to the budget justification for the new system.

Many inspectors are also scheduled for dozens of hours of overtime each pay period, working 12-hour shifts and six-day weeks, according to the IG report. More than 40 percent of FSIS's approximately 10,000 inspectors averaged at least 120 hours per pay period in 2012, and one averaged 179 hours.

The IG expressed concern that the long hours may result in tired inspectors and poor productivity. FSIS officials told the IG they were unaware their inspectors were working such long hours, but didn't consider it a danger to the employees or public health.

"While the FSIS officials disagreed that the hours were affecting their field staff's work, they stated that they needed to better understand the effects of these long hours on their employees," the IG report said.

The head of the union branch that represents many food inspectors took issue with the officials' plea of ignorance.

"That's not true, because they have to approve every timesheet," Stan Painter, chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees's National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, told the Washington Examiner.

USDA officials are trying to pass the blame to avoid answering for the potential stress of long hours, he said.

The majority of inspectors interviewed by the IG, both union and non-union, said they were aware of the long hours before they took their jobs, and liked the compensation that comes with them.

Read the full report here.

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