Military Personnel:

DOD Needs to Assess Certain Factors in Determining Whether Hazardous Duty Pay Is Warranted for Duty in the Polar Regions

GAO-03-554: Published: Apr 29, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2003.

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The 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, conducts supply missions for scientific research in the polar regions. Most unit members do not spend more than 30 consecutive days in the polar regions. Therefore, they are not eligible for hardship duty pay, which requires more than 30 consecutive days of duty in a designated hardship location. Congress considered legislation in 2002 to make an exception to the 30-day hardship duty pay threshold for polar duty. This legislation was not approved. In addition, the 109th Airlift Wing proposed designating polar duty as a hazardous duty. The Conference Report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 directed GAO and DOD to conduct separate reviews of special and incentive pays for polar duty. GAO assessed DOD's rationale for hardship duty pay and the implications of making an exception to hardship duty pay. In addition, GAO assessed the 109th Airlift Wing's justification for hazardous duty pay for polar duty.

Hardship duty pay is intended to compensate military personnel assigned to areas for more than 30 consecutive days where quality-of-life conditions are substantially below those in the continental United States. DOD did not support the hardship duty pay legislation on the basis that this pay was not intended to compensate stays of short duration and the legislation circumvented a DOD process designating hardship duty locations and rates. Granting an exception to the 30-day hardship duty pay threshold for 109th Airlift Wing personnel deployed to the polar regions would result in minimal costs, but this exception could set a precedent for DOD personnel performing other short-term missions and could further increase costs. Had this exception been in effect in 2001-2002, the 109th Airlift Wing estimated the costs would have totaled about $127,000. The National Science Foundation would incur most of these costs because it reimburses DOD for logistic support in the polar regions. The costs of granting an exception for short-term missions conducted by DOD personnel at other hardship locations are unknown. Based on its review of the intent of hardship duty pay and the implications of granting an exception, GAO believes that an exception to the 30-day threshold is not justified under current DOD policy. The 109th Airlift Wing justified its proposal for hazardous pay on the basis of extreme working conditions and exposure to medical hazards. For example, maintenance personnel work in temperatures as cold as minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit without the protection of hangars and are exposed to potential medical hazards such as frostbite, hypothermia, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Unit officials expressed concern about the retention of personnel who require additional training for polar operations, but they did not know what impact hazardous duty pay would have on retention. Recent data from exit surveys show that dissatisfaction with pay was not among the most frequently cited reasons for leaving.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with GAO's recommendation. Congress subsequently determined that polar duty was hazardous and authorized military members serving on polar duty to receive hazardous duty pay. DOD revised its financial management regulations in April 2005 to incorporate hazardous duty incentive pay for polar region flight operations.

    Recommendation: Congress has directed the DOD to study special and incentive pays for reservists performing duty in the polar regions. As part of this study, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) to assess certain factors in determining whether personnel performing polar duty should receive hazardous duty pay. These factors are (1) the extreme working conditions that military personnel encounter while performing polar duty, (2) the exposure of military personnel to potential medical hazards related to polar duty, and (3) retention data for military personnel performing polar duty.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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