Measure approved to keep government open extends pay freeze for feds

March 21, 2013

Congress has approved a short-term funding measure, averting the chance of a federal shutdown next week. But it has some bad news for federal workers: There will be no pay raises this year, and furloughs look all but certain at many agencies.

The House gave final approval Thursday in a bipartisan 318-to-109 vote to a continuing funding resolution that outlines spending through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Following a Senate vote Wednesday, the budget assures that the government will stay open when a stopgap measure funding operations expires March 27. The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature, ending a relatively smooth and drama-free process for a Congress that has repeatedly deadlocked on spending issues.

But by making only a few changes to the automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1, the budget does little to stop the furloughs of more than a million federal employees between April and the end of the fiscal year.

The Defense Department will be able to rebalance some spending by adding about $10 billion to its operations and maintenance budget, for example. But the Pentagon still plans to send furlough notices this week to a majority of the agency’s 800,000 civilian employees, announcing as many as 22 unpaid days, to be counted by one day a week.

Other agencies planning furloughs include environmental protection, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice, the Office of Management and Budget, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The resolution will block the impact of the sequester by adding money to some programs. All additional money, however, was offset with cuts elsewhere, reflecting the sequester. The government will be able spend $982 billion for the year.

Certain programs received special consideration from Congress. Lawmakers agreed to transfer $55 million in agriculture funds that will forestall furloughs among food inspectors. They also allocated funds to ensure that the military can still offer tuition assistance to service members.

"Today's action.. is an acknowledgement that sequestration left USDA with no other option but to furlough meat inspectors," Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in a statement. "[It] provides us with funding to help address those furloughs, but this action does not eliminate the critical need for Congress to find a responsible solution to sequestration.."

 It will be the first time that there will be furloughs across the federal government with no chance for employees to recover their lost pay. Federal labor unions and agency managers are bargaining over how and when employees will take unpaid days.

Furlough plans vary widely, with some agencies saying they do not need to force employees to take unpaid days and others projecting furloughs ranging from several days to 22 days. Where furloughs are planned, timing also differs. Several agencies, including the largest, the Defense Department, expect to start the week of April 21, while some, like the IRS, don’t expect to begin until later.

Congress also closed the door on the possibility of a pay raise for federal workers this year, denying a 0.5 percent increase that Obama proposed and that otherwise would have taken effect in April. The extension of the pay freeze also applies to members of Congress and high-level political appointees.

Federal salaries have been stagnant since January 2010. Employees who are eligible can still get raises when they are promoted and move up a step or grade on the federal pay scale.

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