Furlough questions and answers

February 28, 2013

More than 1 million federal employees face unpaid furloughs because of automatic budget cuts that are set to kick in Friday unless lawmakers reach an agreement on reducing the deficit. 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 is a partial list of 10 questions and answers for federal employees.

You can see all 10 on the Federal Eye at www.washingtonpost.com/blog/federal-eye

Q: Should I come in to work 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 agencies could officially notify employees that they face a furlough. Because of a 30-day notice requirement, furloughs could not start until April.

Several large agencies have said that they don’t expect to issue formal notices until around March 15. These include parts of the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security. The DOD has said its furloughs would begin around the third week of April; the DHS has not been specific on a start 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 the OPM says that the employee will be furloughed no earlier than 30 days from its date and 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, though that acknowledges only that the notice 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 in which 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.

If your job is in a bargaining unit, the union will be negotiating over the timing of furlough days and 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 the MSPB could be swamped with appeals, it could take many months for a decision.

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 those of certain political appointees. Also, agencies have had months to prepare to follow the rules.

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