All of those issues involve serious stakes for government employees and agencies, and lawmakers in recent weeks have expressed little hope that Congress can reach a deal to avoid the first of those threats, the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
Both labor organizations, the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, have said they expect hundreds of their members to converge on Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress during their respective conferences in February.
The Federal Eye sat down Tuesday to talk about budget matters with two top NTEU officials, president Colleen M. Kelley and legislative director Maureen Gilman.
A bit of background: The NTEU is one of the largest federal-employee unions, representing 31 agencies — not just treasury related, despite the name — and more than 150,000 workers.
Here’s a summary of what we covered:
Likelihood of sequestration
Kelley and Gilman said much the same thing the Post’s congressional reporters have heard from lawmakers on the Hill: They’re hoping to avert sequestration, but they’re not exactly optimistic.
“I think people are pessimistic right now,” Gilman said. “But we’re still a month away [from the sequestration deadline.]”
“I’m still hopeful,” Kelley said. “I think it would be the right thing for the country to avoid [the automatic cuts].”
Would sequestration mean furloughs?
Just to clarify, furloughs involve forcing employees to take unpaid time off work — a cost-saving measure — without permanently letting go of workers.
Kelley expressed almost no confidence that a long-term sequester could take place without furloughs. However, lawmakers have talked about the possibility of letting the cuts kick in temporarily while hashing out a deal to avoid the full effects.
How that would impact the federal workforce depends on what each agency has done to prepare for a potential sequester. Most have already tried to reduce costs just in case, Kelley said.
“We have to see what the agencies decide to do and what flexibility they have based on their budgets and how their programs are defined,” Kelley said. “When I look at their budgets, whether it’s an 8.2 [percent cut] or 5.1 [percent] or something in the middle, I just don’t see any agency that can take that kind of a cut without impacting employees.”
How soon could furloughs happen if the cuts kick in?
“It’s really unclear now how soon it could happen,” Kelley said. “Could some agencies have to look at furloughs right away? We’re hearing some of them will, although we don’t know the specifics. The [White House Office of Management and Budget] has made clear some agencies would have to do that right away. Other agencies have maybe been able to save some money and wouldn’t have to do it immediately. There’s more uncertainty than anything right now. That’s part of the problem.”
If the sequestration period is brief, some agencies may be able to avoid furloughs altogether, Kelley said.
How long might furloughs last if they are necessary?
Kelley said federal agencies will try to avoid furloughs extending beyond 22 days. That’s the point where government regulations require them to make reductions in force, or RIFs — which means letting go of workers.
“If you kick in a RIF, you have just totally dismantled an agency, essentially,” Kelley said. “The time it would take them to rebuild and do what the public depends on them to do, it would just be so disruptive.”
For more information on this topic, read Eric Yoder’s explanation of furloughs – he covered much of this territory already with his Q & A on budgetary threats to federal employees.
How can the unions influence furloughs if they happen?
For one thing, they can bargain with federal agencies over how furloughs are implemented and how they impact workers.
Kelley said the NTEU would ask agencies to implement furloughs across the board to ensure they don’t provide exceptions for certain positions and not others. She added that the union will push to allow flexibility in when workers have to take time off in order to accommodate any special circumstances.
Are any agencies exempt from sequestration?
As we mentioned in a previous blog, certain “mandatory” programs would be exempt from cuts, including Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Additional Child Tax Credit, and low-income programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance.
However, federal agencies would see across-the-board budget cuts of between 8 percent and 10 percent, with possible exemptions for the military, depending on what the president decides.
The agencies that administer exempt programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance would not be immune from cuts. Only the benefits themselves would be exempt, according to Gilman.
In addition, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation would be exempt from cuts, since Congress does not appropriate any money to the organization — it funds itself entirely.
The revenue-generating agencies that receive appropriations — such as the IRS, the Patent and Trademark Office and Customs and Border Protection — would not be immune from sequestration, Gilman said.
What if a shutdown occurs?
This would only happen if Congress fails to create a budget or appropriations bill before its last short-term spending plan expires on March 27. To clarify, this issue is not directly related to the sequestration deadline of March 1, which requires lawmakers to reduce the national debt by a certain amount before the cutoff date.
If a shutdown happens, many federal employees would have to stop working and the government would not pay them during that time off. However, Congress could decide to pay the employees retroactively for the shutdown period once it ends.
“There’s no guarantee Congress would do that, which is what we have to tell employees,” Kelley said.
As Yoder noted in his Q & A, the latest projection was that only 800,000 of the 2.1 million non-postal service feds would be told to stay home. The majority of those workers, the 1.3 million, are in jobs considered “emergency” in nature and would be kept on the job without pay.
How should agencies save money?
The NTEU has called on Congress to focus its attention on contractors for cost savings. During the last session of Congress, the union lobbied for a stalled measure that would limit reimbursements for contractor executive pay.
Gilman said the legislation could save the government up to $50 billion over 10 years.
“Some folks are just adamant that their number one goal is to prevent these guys that are making $45,000 a year from getting a half-percent raise as opposed to limiting folks that are being reimbursed $760,000 a year,” Gilman said. “We can’t get some of the people who are screaming loudest about cutting the budget to look at the total dollars as opposed to just looking at the federal workforce.”
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