H.R. 1228 20-Year Retirement Eligibility For IRS Revenue Officers and U.S. Customs Service Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers
House Committee On Government Reform; Subcommittee On Civil Service
Chairman Scarborough, Ranking Member Cummings and Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Colleen M. Kelley, and I am the National President of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). On behalf of more than 155,000 federal employees represented by NTEU, I would like to thank you for holding this hearing on H.R. 1228. This bill would amend sections 8336(c)(1) and 8331 of Title 5 of the United States Code and specifically include IRS Revenue Officers, U.S. Customs Service Inspectors, and Customs Canine Enforcement Officers within the retirement provisions currently applicable to federal law enforcement officers.
The National Treasury Employees Union is the exclusive representative of almost 6,000 IRS Revenue Officers (ROs); 7,000 Customs Inspectors; and over 900 Canine Enforcement Officers (CEOs), all of whom would be affected by H.R. 1228. In addition, NTEU represents Inspectors at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who we believe should be covered by the provisions of this bill. The record clearly supports inclusion of all these employees under the early retirement provisions for law enforcement officers. We are long overdue in granting these men and women the same benefits that other law enforcement officers currently have.
Special retirement provisions for federal law enforcement officers date back to 1947, when such benefits were given to agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These retirement provisions were expanded in 1948 to cover any officer or employee whose duties are primarily the investigation, apprehension, or detention of persons suspected or convicted of offenses against the criminal laws of the United States. Title 5 U.S.C. section 8336 (c)(1) allows law enforcement officers who fall under this definition to retire from the federal government at age 50 after 20 years of service. The law was amended in 1972 to include firefighters. In sum, Congress has found that the work of federal law enforcement officers and firefighters is extremely physically demanding -- far more taxing and dangerous than most jobs in the Federal Service. Further, Congress believed that the public interest is served when these jobs are held, insofar as possible, by younger men and women capable of meeting the intense physical demands of such arduous work.
In light of the special nature and intense stresses associated with their positions, Congress expanded twenty-year retirement eligibility to include air-traffic controllers and nuclear materials handlers. Presently, Members of Congress are also eligible to retire with twenty years of service. Just during the last session of Congress, you voted to give this benefit to special agents and security personnel of the Department of State. It is time to recognize the neglected positions within the IRS and Customs Service.
NTEU believes that IRS Revenue Officers, Customs Inspectors, and Customs Canine Enforcement Officers should receive the same twenty-year retirement option as other law enforcement officers. Every day, the men and women who hold these jobs face enormous physical challenges and constant emotional stress. Enforcing the laws they have sworn to uphold regularly exposes them to the threat of injury or even death. This is dangerous work with real and unrelenting hazards. For the safety of these officers and for the sake of the public they serve, we believe that a twenty-year retirement option for these officers is wise public policy.
THE MISSION OF CUSTOMS AND IRS
The Customs Service is a front line law enforcement agency, and its primary mission is to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Customs Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers (CEOs) make up our Nation=s first line of defense in the war on drugs. They carry out the primary law enforcement activities for the agency by enforcing federal criminal laws and apprehending fugitives who are subject to state and federal warrants. Inspectors and CEOs are responsible for stopping sophisticated and dangerous -- narcotics smugglers, international money-launderers, arms smugglers, terrorists, and fugitives from justice who pose serious threats to our communities. Inspectors use a variety of investigative tools to perform their duties, including vehicle and personal searches and direct interrogation. They search aircraft, vessels, automobiles, railcars, travelers and baggage for violations of civil and criminal laws at hundreds of ports of entry. The Customs Service continues to seize more illegal narcotics than all other federal agencies combined, and Inspectors and CEO's seize more than any other Customs employees.
The mission of the IRS is to enforce the federal tax laws, and IRS Revenue Officers are responsible for collecting delinquent taxes. They are assigned a case only after the IRS has performed extensive background work and afforded a taxpayer numerous opportunities to pay his or her taxes or file a delinquent return. If a case is still not closed after an exhaustive campaign of letter-writing, telephone calls, and record-searches, it is forwarded to a Revenue Officer for a thorough, professional field investigation and appropriate action.
THE THREAT OF VIOLENCE
Customs Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers
The work of Customs Inspectors and CEOs involves substantial physical risks and personal danger. According to the FBI's 1998 Uniform Crime Report, Customs officers were assaulted in 1997 more often than any other federal law enforcement officer. The FBI found that four out of every ten assaults committed against a federal officer was committed against an officer of the Customs Service. Customs officers also accounted for 24 out of 41 Treasury Department officers injured in the line of duty in 1997. In recognition of the kind of work they are asked to perform, both the Department of Treasury and the Customs Service included Customs Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers as law enforcement officers when these statistics were compiled.
Inspectors and CEOs are required to undergo eleven weeks of basic training at the U.S. Customs Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. Their training includes criminal law, arrest authority and arrest procedures, search and seizure authority and techniques, self-defense tactics, frisk and pat-down procedures, hand-cuffing and take-down techniques, anti-terrorism, and firearms use. In addition, all Customs Inspectors and CEOs are issued firearms to protect themselves, their fellow Inspectors, and the public. The decision to require firearms was the agency's necessary response to the constant threat of violence faced by Inspectors in the performance of their duties at all ports. Currently, all Customs Inspectors and CEOs are required to qualify on a firing range three times a year.
Training like this is a matter of life or death for Customs officers, all of whom must be ready to confront armed and hostile travelers and desperate felons and fugitives. Twenty-three Customs Inspectors have been killed in the line of duty. According to the agency, Inspectors and CEOs have been shot, stabbed, run over, dragged by automobiles, assaulted with blunt objects and threatened. Drug smugglers and fugitives do not hesitate to use violence to avoid being caught and arrested.
Inspector Roberto Labrada knows all too well how desperate and violent a drug smuggler can be. On April 17, 1997, he and another Inspector were shot at close range by a smuggler on the Southern Border in Calexico, California. Labrada suspected that a van was carrying drugs and he escorted the driver to the pat-down room for a closer examination. When Labrada told the van driver to put his hands on the counter for a pat down, the driver pulled a handgun from his coat pocket and fired directly at the Inspector, hitting him in his left side. The driver then turned the gun on Inspector Nicholas Lira, who was behind the counter, and shot him in the face and neck before turning back to Inspector Labrada on the floor and shooting him in the right arm. Both Inspectors returned fire and the shooter was killed. After two operations, Inspector Labrada returned to work in June 1997. Inspector Lira had to undergo extensive facial and neck surgery and took much longer to recuperate and return to work. For more than 15 years, Inspector Labrada has faced such hazards on the job. I ask the Committee to consider that if Inspector Labrada had been killed that April day in 1997, his name would have been added to the wall at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC, as a federal law enforcement officer slain in the line of duty. And yet, despite this terrifying attack and the hundreds of other incidents of violence, assaults and hostility he has endured as a Customs Inspector, Inspector Labrada is denied the law enforcement status in life he would have been granted in death. But he was a lucky man that day, and I am delighted and very proud that Inspector Labrada asked to join me here today. He has come from Calexico, California to represent the Inspectors and CEOs of the Customs Service.
Threats and attacks against Customs Inspectors are not limited to busy Southern border land crossings. Inspectors at every port face the hazards that come with trying to detect and detain drug traffickers and other felons. For example, the Canadian border is increasingly susceptible to gang activity and trafficking in a deadly strain of marijuana known as "BC Bud." Customs Inspectors working on the Northern border work regularly with local police to curb the flow of drugs and apprehend fugitives. And for Inspectors at Customs seaports, routine ship searches often turn into dangerous confrontations with armed stowaways trying to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Customs Inspectors are also responsible for working with the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), which is connected to the National Crime Index Center computer. TECS lists warrants for people who are wanted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Inspectors are required to stop these fugitives at the border, who are wanted for such crimes as murder, robbery or rape, in addition to drug smuggling. Inspectors must detain these fugitives until they are transported to jail.
In most areas of the country, Customs Inspectors and CEOs work on task forces with state and local police departments to conduct special operations designed to detect illegal drugs, stolen vehicles and money laundering. They try to stop illegal merchandise from coming into the country, and high tech equipment, illegal currency and weapons from going out.
Finally, Inspectors are also the first line of defense against terrorism. Many of our ports of entry have elaborate anti-terrorist plans in place, and Inspectors work side-by-side with Customs Agents, FBI Agents and local police to carry out contingency plans. Inspectors take the lead in boarding suspicious flights, searching the plane, and looking for stowaways. In these tense situations, fraught with danger, Customs Inspectors are the only enforcement personnel who are not covered by the twenty-year retirement provisions of section 8336(c)(1). Based on data provided to NTEU by the Customs Service, we estimate that Customs Inspectors were directly involved in the detention and arrest of almost 109,000 individuals between 1987 and 1997. The data also shows that Customs Inspectors made 77% of the total number of drug seizures made by the Customs Service over that ten-year period. In addition, between 1987 and 1997, Customs Inspectors seized $3.8 billion in undeclared currency, which is 76% of the total amount of undeclared currency seized by the Customs Service. We believe that the status of Customs Inspectors and CEOs as law enforcement officers is clear and undeniable.
IRS Revenue Officers
Study after study performed by the IRS shows that the job of Revenue Officer (RO) is one of the most hazardous in the Department of Treasury, and that includes the Secret Service. Revenue Officers are required to call on delinquent taxpayers from crime-ridden city neighborhoods to remote and isolated rural areas. Revenue Officers have been held hostage, attacked by dogs, hit by cars, threatened with shotguns, handguns, hunting rifles, knives, hammers, tire irons, and bombs. One RO I spoke to from Santa Ana, California suffered a broken thumb at the hands of an irate, delinquent taxpayer. Delinquent taxpayers are sometimes in desperate financial or legal trouble. And it is no longer surprising when Revenue Officers find themselves confronting delinquent taxpayers that belong to tax protest groups or a local militia.
It is not always the taxpayer who poses the greatest danger. The neighbors and families of delinquent taxpayers have threatened to shoot Revenue Officers if they don't leave the premises. Revenue Officers must collect from drug dealers, organized crime figures, and tax protesters. Indeed, the growing number of illegal tax protest groups poses a significant threat to IRS Revenue Officers. These groups collect names and addresses of Revenue Officers and release information to fellow protesters. Many of these groups advocate violence against the IRS. I have been told by Revenue Officers that they and their families were under surveillance by tax protesters. In some cases, contracts are put out on the lives of Revenue Officers. One RO told me about the time he visited a taxpayer's home in Nebraska and saw a sign in the window that read, "IRS Personnel Shot On Sight."
Revenue Officers must conduct seizures of taxpayer assets, including homes and cars. Many ROs wear bulletproof vests and are accompanied by armed police officers to safely perform this aspect of their jobs. Public sales of seized property can be dangerous as well. ROs sometimes need to move a sale location because they receive threats from tax protesters.
Every Revenue Officer could tell you about the times when they feared for their lives while working a case. These brushes with violent, threatening delinquent taxpayers are etched in their minds and easily recalled.
THE STRESS AND HAZARDS
Customs Inspector and Canine Enforcement Officer
Not many people recognize the sacrifices that Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers make for the Customs Service. Their lives are controlled by their jobs. They rarely work regular 9-5 schedules and they have little control over the schedules they do work in any given two week period. Staffing levels are not adequate to meet the needs of most ports, so Inspectors are frequently asked to work on their days off or to work beyond their regular shifts. The constant strain of performing dangerous, life-threatening work on an irregular and unpredictable schedule has a profound impact on the health and personal lives of many Inspectors and CEOs.
One recent study showed that U.S. Customs Service officers, including Inspectors and Agents, commit suicide at a rate of 280% higher than the national suicide rate. They must maintain control and authority, sometimes for 16 hours a day, knowing that a dangerous situation could arise at any moment. Coupled with the mental stresses, there are unusual physical demands placed on Customs Inspectors and CEOs. Their work requires bending, lifting or moving heavy containers, kneeling or stooping for prolonged periods, and crawling into cramped areas.
For instance, Inspectors at seaports are required to board vessels at sea if the vessel is too large to come into the port. They must ride smaller launch ships or Coast Guard cutters through eight-foot ocean swells and bad weather. After reaching the ship out in the harbor, often they board it by descending a long rope ladder and timing the wave swells with the ladder's movement against the vessel. Once aboard, Inspectors are exposed to all kinds of hazards. They must endure the intense heat and noise of the engine rooms, and must safely navigate high pressure lines, large machinery, cranes and fork lifts during routine searches.
Inspectors must search all manner of cargo coming into the United States. This includes chemicals and other hazardous materials. In some areas, Inspectors and CEOs are exposed to insect swarms and disease, and in some situations, they have undergone mandatory testing for hazardous exposure to asbestos and lead. They must stand for hours in awkward positions at border crossings where they breathe exhaust fumes and withstand driving rains, snow, ice and high winds, and the scorching heat of summer.
IRS Revenue Officers
The adversarial nature of the Revenue Officer/delinquent taxpayer relationship places significant strain on the typical IRS Revenue Officer, for whom danger and confrontation are part of the daily routine. Revenue Officers face crushing workloads, a hostile work environment, and the ever-present threat of physical attack, a danger that, sadly, extends to their families and loved ones. The stress associated with these conditions can exact a severe toll. According to one study, relied on by the IRS in 1985, these stresses are exacerbated with age and can lead to physical problems, including high blood pressure, stomach problems, insomnia, depression and in some cases suicide.
Granting early retirement to these officers will no doubt be costly, but we believe the costs are easily outweighed by the benefits to the officers, their families, and the American public.
No one could reasonably dispute the importance of the work done by these law officers. Whether stopping the flow of illegal drugs or enforcing our nation's tax laws, these hard-working men and women provide a critical public service. Given the significance of these jobs, it is vitally important for Customs and the IRS to be competitive with other state and local law enforcement agencies in the recruitment and retention of first-rate personnel. Yet we know that the combination of low starting salaries and second-rate retirement benefits does not always attract the best candidates for these difficult, dangerous and essential jobs. Recruitment and retention of capable personnel was a preeminent consideration behind Congress= establishment of the twenty-year retirement option for other law enforcement officers and firefighters. We believe the same compelling rationale exists here.
Any cost analysis of providing twenty-year retirement must look at such factors as the loss or quit rates of highly experienced employees, reduced training costs, and increased revenue collection. According to the IRS, a direct relationship exists between retirement benefits and personnel loss rates. As retirement benefits increase, loss rates decrease. More to the point, we understand that incumbents entitled to twenty-year retirement have a lower attrition rate than incumbents in the same series that do not. I believe that loss rates for incumbents with twenty-year retirement entitlement are more stable over time, and little change occurs from one fiscal year to another.
The high cost associated with turnover and training new employees must also be considered when weighing the costs and benefits of a twenty-year retirement. When Revenue Officers quit or leave the agency, their inexperienced replacements need extensive and costly training. It takes an inexperienced new RO some two years to learn the job and become as productive as the experienced RO that he or she has replaced. The existence of the twenty-year retirement option will not only help the IRS retain experienced personnel, but it will help the agency compete against other law enforcement agencies to recruit experienced and capable officers.
The situation at the Customs Service is no different. Currently, newer hires to the Customs Service are, on average, 40 years old with 7 years in the job. These young officers are highly susceptible to the pull of twenty-year retirement benefits and higher salaries offered by state and local law enforcement agencies. They have received costly training and on-the-job experience with the Customs Service, but they know they deserve to be rewarded for the dangers and risks they are exposed to every day. All too often, talented young officers treat the Customs Service as a stepping stone to other law enforcement agencies with more generous retirement benefits. When this occurs, both Customs and the war on drugs that the agency is expected to lead suffer as a result.
This Congress has recently passed a 792 billion dollar tax cut bill to be paid for out of the growing budget surplus. I would submit that the small amount needed to pay for fair treatment of deserving and dedicated enforcement personnel like Inspector Labrada, could also come out of the budget surplus that has come about at least in part from cuts in federal employee pay and benefits.
We are convinced that Revenue Officers of the IRS, and Inspectors and Canine Enforcement Officers of the Customs Service should receive the same early retirement benefits as those enjoyed by other law enforcement personnel. When law enforcement officers from different agencies join forces on a drug raid or to search a boat for armed smugglers, these Customs officers are often the only law officers on the scene who are not eligible for early retirement. They all face the same dangers and all are haunted by the same risk of death or injury, yet when it comes to inferior benefits, the Customs officers stand alone.
Revenue Officers are subjected to the same gross inequities when they join with law officers from other federal agencies and their state and local counterparts on dangerous and risky operations. These dedicated men and women are united by the violence and threats they bravely endure, but when it comes to retirement benefits, the Revenue Officer goes to the back of the line.
Customs and IRS law officers put their lives on the line every day to serve the American people. The work they do is as dangerous as it is important. In the course of fighting the war on drugs and upholding our tax laws, these men and women have been beaten, kicked, stabbed, and dragged behind cars; some have been killed. They are part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of law enforcement officers across this nation who put themselves in harms way to uphold the laws passed by this Congress. They are subject to the same perils, meet the same rigorous job standards, and rely on the same investigative skills and techniques as other law enforcement officers who enjoy the significant benefits of early retirement. Common sense and simple justice demand an end to this terrible inequity.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today on behalf of the IRS and Customs Service employees to discuss these very important issues.