Furloughs could result from sequestration as last resort, administration says

December 20, 2012

(Charles Dharapak/AP)

The Obama administration plans to inform federal employees that furloughs could result as a last resort if the White House and Congress do not come to an agreement to prevent sharp budget cuts on Jan. 1 through the process known as sequestration, according to federal labor leaders.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget, told federal labor leaders in a conference call last night that federal workers would receive an email today informing them that sequestration is not the same as a government shutdown and that the government’s work would continue.

They emphasized that if furloughs occur, they would not happen immediately.

Administration officials did not discuss layoffs with labor leaders, according to an administration source.

The point of the email, said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, is to prevent federal workers from being alarmed about the possibility of sequestration.

In a separate email to labor leaders and government officials Thursday morning, Werfel outlined the information OMB “provided to agencies to help them communicate with their employees (beginning as early as today).”

According to Werfel’s email, supplied by a union source:

• “The Administration and Congress are continuing to work to resolve a series of economic or fiscal events, collectively referred to as the “fiscal cliff,” that are scheduled to occur around the end of the year.

• “One of the key issues involves potential across-the-board reductions in Federal spending— also known as “sequestration”—which were put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Under current law, these reductions are scheduled to take effect on January 2, 2013.

• “First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind that the Administration remains focused on working with Congress to reach agreement on a balanced deficit reduction plan that avoids such cuts. Sequestration was never intended to be implemented, and there is no reason why both sides should not be able to come together and prevent this scenario.

• “Nevertheless, with only a couple of weeks left before sequestration could occur should a deal not be reached, it is important to clarify the potential implications.

• “If it occurs, sequestration will reduce our budgetary resources for the remainder of the fiscal year (which runs through September 30).

• “These cuts, while significant and harmful to our collective mission as an agency, would not necessarily require immediate reductions in spending. Under sequestration, we would still have funds available after January 2, but our overall funding for the remainder of the year would be reduced.

• “Accordingly, this situation is different from other scenarios we have encountered in recent years, such as threats of government shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations.

• “For these reasons, I do not expect our day-to-day operations to change dramatically on or immediately after January 2, should sequestration occur.

• “ This means that we will not be executing any immediate personnel actions, such as furloughs, on that date.

• “ Should we have to operate under reduced funding levels for an extended period of time, we may have to consider furloughs or other actions in the future.

• “But let me assure you that we will carefully examine other options to reduce costs within the agency before taking such action, taking into consideration our obligation to execute our core mission.

• “Moreover, if such action proves to be necessary, we would provide affected employees the requisite advance notice before a furlough or other personnel action would occur.

• “ We would also immediately cancel any scheduled personnel actions should a deficit reduction agreement be reached that restores our agency funding.

American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox Sr. said: “We’re glad the administration seems to be taking a ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’ approach, because as awful as sequestration would be, some of the items in these ‘grand deals’ are outrageously bad for federal employees. We’re doing our own preparation to make sure that if sequestration does occur, agencies spread the pain to their larger and more costly contractor workforce and don’t put it all on us.”

The International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, which reported on the conference call, said in a “sequestration update” email to its members Thursday morning:

“First and foremost, it is becoming more and more likely that there will be a deal that includes significant revenue increases so that there will be less of a need for cuts. Even if it doesn’t happen by December 31st, it will likely happen by early January at the absolute latest.

“Second, regardless of the final deal, there will be large cuts to most federal agencies so there will be pain although much less than if the Budget Control Act (sequestration) were allowed to kick in.

“Third, sequestration or any deal to avoid it is not a shutdown. All federal agencies will be open on January 2nd and all federal employees should report to work as scheduled. Any cuts will be gradually implemented and so there should not be any real disruptions in January (i.e., no furloughs).”

Below is an example of the notices that agencies are sending to federal workers about the sequestration process. This one is from the USDA. You can also see a nearly identical email that NASA sent earlier this morning at this link.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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