Furlough Friday: 10 questions and answers

February 28, 2013
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More than 1 million federal employees face unpaid furloughs due to automatic sequestration budget cuts. Not all agencies expect to furlough employees, but few exceptions will apply where they do occur. The number of days and the scheduling will vary by agency and most likely will be spread out over weeks or even months.

Following are 10 questions and answers for federal employees.

Q: Should I come in to work on Friday?

A: Yes, but bad news might be waiting there for you.

According to Office of Personnel Management guidance, “Employees who are scheduled to work on March 1, 2013, should report for work. Under sequestration, agencies would still have funds available after March 1, but the overall funding for the remainder of the fiscal year would be reduced. This means that agencies will not be executing any immediate personnel actions, such as furloughs, on March 1.”

Friday would be the earliest that most agencies would officially notify employees that they face a furlough and because of a 30-day notice requirement, their furloughs could not start until April. At least two agencies, the Justice Department and National Labor Relations Board, already have issued notices.

Several large agencies have said that they don’t expect to issue their formal notices until around March 15. These include parts of the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security. DoD has said its furloughs would begin around the third week of April; DHS has not been specific on a startup date.

Most other agencies have not said when they would issue their furlough notices.

Q: What exactly does a furlough notice tell an employee?

A: A sample notice prepared by OPM says that the employee will be furloughed no earlier than 30 days from its date, gives a brief explanation of the reason—in this case, it would be sequestration-caused budget reductions—and the expected beginning and ending dates.

It says, “We recognize the difficult personal financial implications of any furlough, no matter how limited its length. We will make every effort to keep you informed as additional information regarding the agency funding level becomes available.”

There’s also a line for the employee to sign the notice, although that acknowledges only that it has been received, not that the employee agrees with it.

Q: What would be the next step?

A: Employees who receive furlough notices have seven calendar days to respond orally and/or in writing, to review the supporting material, and to furnish any affidavits or other supporting documentary evidence. They have the right to be represented by an attorney or other person of their choice.

The agency must give “full consideration” to the employee’s response and must provide a final written decision, including an explanation of the specific reasons for the action taken, “as soon as possible.”

In addition, up to 30 days after your first actual unpaid day off, you can file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Meanwhile, if your job is in a bargaining unit, the union will be negotiating over the timing of furlough days and certain other details. But it’s solely up to management to decide whether there will be a furlough.

Q: Can I convince my agency that being furloughed would be too much of a financial hardship on me?

A: That’s one of the ironies of the situation, according to legal experts. An agency would not want to make exceptions, even for hardship, because that would leave management vulnerable to appeals from other employees claiming that it is not treating everyone equally.

Q: How would an appeal work?

A: The filing of an appeal does not stop the furlough, just as union bargaining does not stop it. And since MSPB could be swamped with appeals, it could take many months to decide on such an appeal.

Essentially, an employee would have to show that the agency committed a “prohibited personnel practice” meaning a violation of civil service employment law. Such practices include discrimination, retaliation, favoritism and other forms of unequal treatment. Another ground for appeal would be that the agency failed to follow the required procedures.

Such claims could be hard to win. Few exceptions that could become the grounds for an unequal treatment claim will be allowed, and those typically involve positions that are exempt by law, such as certain political appointees. Also, agencies have had months to prepare to follow the rules.

Q: Exactly how much will this cost me?

A: That depends on how many furlough days you face. Your pay will be reduced proportionately for each pay period in which you are furloughed.

The highest number mentioned to date is 22, which parts of the departments of Defense and Transportation have said they expect. None are expected to go above that number because to do so would trigger other employee protections, including the need to follow complex layoff-type procedures. Customs and Border Protection projects 14 days, while several other agencies have said they expect only a few furlough days.

If you are under the Federal Employees Retirement System, the automatic 1 percent of salary contribution your agency makes into the Thrift Savings Plan on your behalf—whether or not you invest any of your own money—will be based on your actual salary for the pertinent pay period. If you are making personal investments based on a percentage of salary, that dollar amount also will reduce, as will the government’s matching contributions worth up to another 4 percent of salary.

On the positive side, you of course would not be paying federal income tax and other taxes on income you are not receiving.

Q: Are there any other costs?

A: The overall need to find budgetary savings has caused agencies to cut back in several areas that affect federal employees directly or indirectly.

Agencies are reducing overtime, which many employees have come to count on, and other types of payments. For example, Customs and Border Protection has stopped paying recruitment, retention and relocation allowances, and the Army has said that its components should closely review such costs. Agencies also could target another form of incentive, student loan repayment allowances; OPM recently reported that such payments dropped in 2011, largely due to even lesser budget restrictions in effect at that time.

Agencies also are cutting spending on travel and conferences and other training-type events that can benefit an employee’s career. Similarly, general hiring freezes, such as the one the Defense Department has imposed, hamper career advancement opportunities.

Q: Can I take paid leave on furlough days and keep my income steady?

A: No. OPM says that an employee “may not substitute paid leave or other forms of paid time off for any hours or days designated as furlough time off.” An employee who already was scheduled to be on paid leave—such as vacation time—on a day that is later designated as a furlough day would have to substitute unpaid leave for that day, and take the paid day some other time.

An employee who already is scheduled to be on unpaid leave—such Family and Medical Leave Act leave—on a day that later is designated as a furlough day would not have to take additional unpaid leave after returning to work, however.

Technically, you could take outside employment on furlough days, if you could find an employer willing to hire you on a sporadic, short-term basis—and if that job wouldn’t conflict with ethical restrictions, which still would apply. You also might be eligible for unemployment compensation, depending on state law.

Q: What about my benefits?

A: Health insurance, life insurance and other benefits will continue, meaning the employee will remain responsible for paying the same premium amounts, even from a reduced salary. Special rules apply if an employee’s salary is not sufficient to pay the premiums—which likely wouldn’t happen in furloughs spread out over many weeks or months.

You will not be entitled to severance pay because you are not being separated from service. Details of these and other policies are on OPM’s Web site.

Q: Any chance this won’t happen?

A: Yes, but there’s also a chance it could get worse, at least for some employees.

Last-minute agreements have been reached several times in recent budgetary crises, although the odds this time aren’t looking good. But since employees of most agencies wouldn’t be furloughed at least until April, Washington effectively has another month to act before they would suffer an unpaid day off.

A temporary measure that has been funding the government since last October will expire March 27. Some sort of other funding, either temporarily or through the remainder of the current fiscal year, must be enacted or else the government will face a partial shutdown. Such a measure could provide full or partial relief from the sequester.

However, there’s no guarantee, and spending authority could be allowed to lapse. In that case, immediate furloughs, with no notice and response period, would be ordered. Employees whose jobs are designated as “emergency” would have to keep working. The last time there was a serious shutdown threat, in early 2011, the White House estimated that all but about 800,000 of the 2.1 million non-postal employees have such status.

In shutdowns dating to the 1990s and earlier, all employees later were fully paid for the furlough time after new spending authority was enacted, regardless of whether they had worked. In 2011 officials stated their intent to later pay at least those employees who remained on the job; no decision was made regarding employees who would not work.

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not note that at least two agencies have already issued furlough notices. The story has been corrected.

 

 

 

 

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