Chelsea Schilling is a commentary editor and staff writer for WND and a proud U.S. Army veteran. She has also worked as a news producer at USA Radio Network and as a news reporter for the Sacramento Union.More ↓Less ↑
(photo: Milwaukee Consumer)
While President Obama delivers speeches praising the alleged success of Cash for Clunkers, a former rebate processor for the federal program – also working undercover for WND – is calling it “complete chaos.”
After the federal “Cash for Clunkers” program ended Aug. 24, the Department of Transportation reported that nearly 700,000 clunkers were taken off the roads and replaced by more fuel-efficient vehicles. Rebate applications worth $2.877 billion were submitted by the 8 p.m. deadline. The Transportation Department hired federal employees and private contract workers to process the rebates vouchers so car dealers would be compensated.
Former White House aide Kathleen Willey was hired as an employee with Vangent Incorporated, a company that provides information technology management and business process outsourcing services to the public and private sectors. Its clients include federal agencies such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the U.S. Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Justice and Labor and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Vangent, based in Arlington, Va., secured a contract from the Department of Transportation in late August and earlier this month to handle 300,000 applications – or nearly half of all Cash for Clunkers vouchers. Vangent Vice President Eileen Rivera told WND the company hired at least 4,000 temporary employees in Chester, Va., Tampa, Fla., and London, Ky.
No work history needed
Willey processed the Cash for Clunkers vouchers at her position in Chester, Va. She attended a job fair on Aug. 31 and was hired through Astyra Corp., a minority-owned staffing company.
“We were told that we would be working on the Cash for Clunkers programming, examining all of the documents that the government had received from dealers all over the country,” Willey told WND.
She said many of the applicants had never even heard of the Cash for Clunkers program.
“We were not asked for any prior work history,” Willey said. “The job description was listed as data entry and called for the ability to type 30 words per minute. There were no job requirements actually listed on the application.”
The form requested direct deposit information, signature on a confidentiality agreement and background check, tax information and two forms of identification.
Willey said, “Some people did not have two forms, and I heard one recruiter say, ‘We will work with you on that.’”
She asked a woman who interviewed her what she would need to do before beginning her new position.
“When I asked if I needed to take any kind of test, the answer was, ‘No,’” Willey said. “She told me to report for work the next day at 4:30 p.m. When I asked if I had to pass a background check before I started, she said, ‘No.’”
However, Rivera said, “That’s absolutely not true. Every single temporary employee who was hired went through a background check. If the background check did not clear, then they were released. They were not allowed to work on this program.”
Barefoot and foul-mouthedemployees
Willey said she was the only non-minority applicant in the room. While human resources required a strict dress code for the position, she said she was shocked by the clothing and conduct of other candidates who were interviewed:
I was the only one dressed for a job interview. Everyone else had on jeans and T-shirts. Most women wore flip-flops. One woman was barefoot. The women were dressed extremely unprofessionally, in jeans and very revealing tops. A lot of them wore T-shirts that barely covered their stomachs. What I noticed most were the foul mouths of everyone around me.
The next day, Willey reported that as many as 300 new employees attended orientation for new positions with Vangent.
“One of the first things we were told was that Cash for Clunkers will help the environment,” she said.
One supervisor told the group, “The president has passed a good bill to do something good for the American people, but this program is a ‘moving target.’ Rules are changed daily.”
A Department of Transportation webinar instructor repeated the statement about the program being a “moving target.”
“He was obviously with the administration because he told us that the Cash for Clunkers program was a huge success for the country as well as the environment,” Willey said. “He told us that we are dealing with ‘three times the business in one-third of the time.’ He also told us repeatedly that we were going to have to ‘get out of our comfort zones’ and be flexible.”
She said she knew of only two professional trainers who had been brought in by the Department of Transportation to train everyone – supervisors, managers and employees. The supervisors and managers frequently contradicted one another and talked to the employees as if they were “in the first grade.” The recruits were told they would soon receive photo identification badges.
A paycheck to do ‘absolutely nothing’
The following day, on Sept. 2, employees waited outside from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. to get into the building.
“Once inside, we waited another 30 minutes to sign in ‘so we would get paid,’” Willey recalled. “I noted that it was written on the piece of paper that our work day started at 4:30. We then waited in line at the ‘badge table’ to get our badges. When I got there, I had no badge. I finally got to my desk at about 6:45 p.m., where I sat with nothing to do until 10 p.m.”
The employees waited for their user IDs and passwords to access the Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS. Meanwhile, they were being paid $14.71 an hour “to do absolutely nothing,” Willey said.
“There was not a supervisor to be found,” she said. “Because I was bored to death, I read a newspaper and a book.”
At 10 p.m., more than five hours after signing in, she said the employees were still being paid to remain idle. Willey and another employee went to find a supervisor.
“When we finally found one, we told her we wanted our user IDs and passwords so we could get to work, but she was too busy ordering out,” she said. “At 10:20 p.m., we finally tracked down someone who had a list of our user IDs and passwords. I tried to get in and was ultimately locked out of the system. At 11:30 p.m., I found another supervisor and told her my problem. She told us she would look into it, but we couldn’t find her again. We were told to go home at midnight, but that we should put 12:30 a.m. on our timesheets.”
Rivera told WND, “It’s very likely that she went through four or five hours of training. There was about two or three hours of onboarding to make sure that they were familiar with what they were about to be doing. A lot of employees all had to be trained at the same time, and there were different waves of that process that were going on.”
Willey stopped by the security room to request her badge before leaving. A woman told her the badges were ready but that she could not have hers yet.
“I told her that we were told that we would have to wait another hour and a half the next day to get in, and I asked if she would reconsider giving them to us,” Willey recalled. “She told me, ‘No, because there were four bags of them,’ and she didn’t want to go through the bags. I asked if we could look ourselves or help her look because we wanted to get into the building to start working, but she again said, ‘No.’ When I asked why, she said, ‘No.’”
More trouble with federal CARS system
On Sept. 3, Willey said she waited almost two hours to get into the building and collect her badge.
“Once again, I was unable to sign in to CARS,” she reported. “My desk was filthy. On my way to the bathroom to get paper towels to clean my desk, I went in search of a supervisor to ask for help with signing in. When I finally found one, he told me that he couldn’t help me and I should go to the other side and look for help. I finally found one who took my name and said he would check on it and that he would be back.”
Willey went to the restroom to gather paper towels to clean her desk. When she arrived, she said she was shocked at the condition of the facility.
“I found overflowing toilets and vomit all over the floor,” she said.
At 9:15 p.m., Willey was still waiting for help to access the CARS system.
“Despite all of my efforts to find help, I found myself sitting at my desk with absolutely nothing to do,” she said. “Most everyone around me seemed to have no problem with that. I finally started reading my newspaper while I waited.”
Suddenly, she said, a supervisor appeared and admonished her for reading at her desk.
“When I tried to explain to her that there was no work and that I had nothing to do but stare at a blank screen, she ordered me to put my paper away,” Willey said. “When I asked her if she would help me get into the system, she told me she could not. I folded my newspaper and put it on my desk. She reappeared and yelled at me to remove it from the top of my desk, saying that newspapers, books, etc., are not allowed on your desk.”
Another supervisor appeared to help the employees with the computer problem.
“I finally got in, but was immediately locked out again,” she said. “She was gone and could never be found again. My friend and I finally figured out by ourselves how to get in and stay in.”
Once in the CARS system, employees were told to send an e-mail requesting assignments. Willey waited for work until 11:50 p.m., when she approved her first transaction. She ended the shift and left work only 50 minutes later.
Screenshot of federal government’s cars.gov website
During a 37.5-hour work week, Willey reported actually working only 14 hours – but she was paid for more than 37 hours of work.
“Two of those nights, I had no work at all,” she said. “On those two evenings, when I left, I complained to two different supervisors and I got two different responses: ‘Milk it, baby!’ and ‘Free money!’”
However, Rivera told WND, “A 37.5-hour work week was typical, but it is very unlikely that anyone was sitting around with nothing to do because there was so much work to do.”
Willey continued, “After our 10:30 p.m. break, it was party time. Not a lot of people worked between 10:45 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. I will say, that there were some hard workers there, but they were all older women and a few older men.”
Willey, a Level 2 reviewer who examined Cash for Clunkers vouchers after they had been checked once by a Level 1 reviewer, said the vouchers were being returned to “irate” dealers as many as seven times.
She said the vouchers are “rife with idiotic mistakes by Level 1 reviewers who are rejecting them for no reason at all, mostly because they are not paying attention.”
“I am amazed at the number of vouchers that have been rejected in the last six weeks,” Willey said. “Many have been rejected and returned to dealers three to seven times! And for no good reason. What is happening here is that the Level 1 examiners are so inept and lazy that, rather than take the time to closely examine and review these vouchers the way that they should, they just hit the reject or approve button without a second thought. That, of course, slows down the whole process and the dealers aren’t getting paid by the Department of Transportation. The dealers are frustrated and irate, and make no bones about it when they return their documents that are correct and don’t need to be revised. When their documents are returned for revision, they have no number to call or person to e-mail.”
Willey told WND that auto dealers were often very good about submitting the eight documents required to receive a rebate, but some vouchers were being sent back because Level 1 examiners failed to hit the “next” button to go to the following page of documents.
She said, “I saw that time and time again. Then the dealers would write back and say, ‘It’s on Page 2.’”
Willey said a single voucher would be passed around to as many as a dozen workers without being processed.
“I’d get something, and I would see that it had gone around to people in our office in Chester six or seven times and nobody had worked on it,” she said. “It was obvious that maybe someone would look at it and say, ‘This is too complicated. I’m going to back out of it.’ Then they would back out of it and someone else would do the same.”
The New York Times reported that the CARS computer systems were often overloaded, and dealers said they would finish one page in the application, hit enter and nothing would happen. Then a message would notify the dealer that the page had “timed out.”
The DOT declined to respond to WND’s requests for information on its CARS database. Vangent Vice President Eileen Rivera said, “There were times when an ID had to be reset. If you can imagine, there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people all logging in to the system at the same time. We were asked by the Department of Transportation to use this system, so we did our best to train everyone.”
Dealers have indicated that failure to be reimbursed would be a “nightmare” for them. At Los Angeles’ Galpin Motors, Vice President Beau Boeckmann told the New York Times his company would “try to ‘unwind’ the sale, get the slightly used car back and try to sell it again.”
Other dealers told the Washington Post that failure to repay them for the Cash for Clunkers program could force them into bankruptcy. When Cash for Clunkers was first announced, the government said it would reimburse dealers within 10 days of a sale. But many dealerships pulled out of the program early following frustrations concerning delays on federal payments.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the government has compensated dealers or approved rebates for 83 percent of the cars sold. The government has paid or cleared $2.38 billion of the $2.87 billion in dealer vouchers, according to the Transportation Department. Officials claim 8.8 percent of applications have been rejected and 8.1 percent are still being reviewed.
“I know some of you have a little heartburn, but you’re all going to get paid,” LaHood said in a Sept. 16 speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association. “Maybe not in the timely way you would have liked.”
‘Complete waste of taxpayer money’
LaHood has said all dealers will be reimbursed by Sept. 30. In August, the Dow Jones Newswire reported that federal bailout recipient Citigroup was selected as one of the private contractors to process Cash for Clunkers paperwork. It was awarded an estimated $7.7 million federal contract.
Edmunds.com, a website for car buyers, predicts that the hangover from Cash for Clunkers could be responsible for the loss of 100,000 car sales across the nation this month. Some dealerships now say they are once again facing hard times because car sales are declining and many companies are still waiting for voucher reimbursements, the Boston Globe reported.
“It was probably, in the end, a complete waste of taxpayer money,” said John Wolkonowicz, a senior auto analyst at IHS Global Insight, Lexington forecasting firm. “The dealers, who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries, many were forced into cash flow problems because the government didn’t pay them in a timely fashion.”
Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, which represents 441 dealerships, told the Globe that most dealers are probably still owed money.
“This program was very good at getting product off the lot, but there haven’t been long-term benefits,” he said. “Dealers are reporting that showrooms are pretty dead right now.”
On Sept. 14, less than two weeks after she was hired, Willey received a surprise when she appeared for work:
“After sitting at work tonight from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., we were all herded into a room and told that our jobs were over and we were no longer needed.”
Willey said the contractor released the day and night shifts without explanation. Likewise, Vangent workers in Florida were let go after only two weeks, according to the Tampa Tribune.
“I spent the majority of my time sitting in that office waiting for work. I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “What I saw while I worked on Cash for Clunkers rebates was complete chaos.”
However, Rivera told WND that Vangent successfully processed 300,000 vouchers in less than three weeks – with 98 percent accuracy.
“If you think about it, that was a lot of work,” she said. “It was a matter of ramping up the number of employees as quickly as we could, getting everybody trained and processing the vouchers. We finished the contract.”
Rivera told WND she believes the government will finish processing the vouchers and meet its Sept. 30 deadline.
“We were very efficient,” she said. “We are very proud of the work we did, and 98 percent of all the vouchers done correctly is testament to the good work that all of the employees did during the program.”
Note: Media wishing to interview Kathleen Willey or Chelsea Schilling, please contact WND.