WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — A cap on federal income has prevented United States Secret Service agents from being paid for hundreds of hours of work on the presidential campaign trail, leaving many agents working overtime for free since as early as this spring during what has been a historically demanding election year for the agency.
The Secret Service is one of the only agencies in the government that routinely pays overtime. But the payments are part of a byzantine structure wherein agents can run up against caps on overtime per pay period or annually — as well a yearly federal cap of $160,300 that limits an agent's salary and overtime combined.
It’s the annual federal cap, officials say, that has posed a problem during this year’s election and become a subject of great ire and frustration inside the agency.
When overtime drives an agent's aggregate income past the $160,300 limit — no matter how early in the year — that agent may no longer earn paid overtime, even as they regularly work long past a 50-hour week, traveling around the clock with the candidates, their families, the Obamas, the Bidens, and the press.
Ask any agent on the campaign trail when they “maxed out” during the course of the year — or hit the federal limit — and they will be ready with an answer: May, April, March, or, for some of the most senior agents in the field, even earlier.
The result? Hundreds of agents working months of overtime for which they will never be paid.
“It’s been an incredible sacrifice,” Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy told USA Today of the demands on agents this year. (Clancy has no power over the federal salary limit, but did waive a $35,000 cap restricting overtime specifically. The measure did not affect maxed-out agents, but did draw attention the high demands of the election year.)
An effort to raise the federal salary cap by about $10,000 in both the House and the Senate — a measure that would alleviate the issue but do little to address the underlying problem in future election cycles — has so far seen little success.
Secret Service officials have struggled to find members of Congress to champion the bills. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a nonpartisan group representing federal agents, has also started to lobby officials in Washington.
It’s not unusual for agents to work past the federal limit during election years — “but to a much lesser degree,” said Faron Paramore, who serves as the assistant director for government and public affairs at the Secret Service and acts as a congressional liaison.
This election, Paramore said, has been different.
The reason is twofold. First, a hiring freeze about two years ago limited the number of active agents, requiring more work from more people in the field.
Second, and most problematic, according to Paramore, is the unusual demands of the election year, with an outgoing president and vice president requiring protection along with the candidates, coupled with high-profile events like the conventions and United Nations General Assembly.
“It’s really because of the tempo,” said Paramore, citing an “enormous amount of trips” and the high number of leaders and dignitaries under watch.
The agency was nearly as strapped last year, staffing a September visit from the pope and assigning details in November to Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, in addition to protection for Bill and Hillary Clinton and eventually Chelsea Clinton.
Of 3,330 active special agents, nearly all of them have been involved to some degree in the election. Approximately a third will go over the federal pay cap, Paramore said.
The work of Secret Service agents this year has required almost daily overtime, particularly during the conventions and in the heat of the general election campaign.
Since Labor Day, the demands of the trail have intensified. Agents on the Clinton detail have all but moved into the Crowne Plaza Hotel here in White Plains, New York, not far from where the candidate returns home nearly every night after a day of campaign events.
The bills to lift the federal salary cap to $170,000 have largely stalled in Congress.
The provision would be retroactive. If adopted in 2017, it would allow agents who worked overtime on the trail after they hit the salary cap to receive some back pay.
It’s unclear if Congress will act on the legislation or if these provisions will make it into the final version of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act.
“We’ve done everything that we can possibly do,” Paramore said.