As sequester nears, federal workers who face furloughs express themselves


A general view of the U.S. Capitol is seen from the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, February 25, 2013. Pressure is mounting on Congress and the White House to find a way to avoid a package of $85 billion in across-the-board-spending cuts, known as the "sequester," due to take effect on March 1. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Joe Davidson
Columnist February 25, 2013

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Friday’s deadline for across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester is three days away.

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

All over government, agencies are preparing to furlough employees, which would mean pay cuts for them and less service for everyone. More than a million federal workers face unpaid leave days unless Congress reaches an agreement to avoid the cuts.

Reaction to these unpaid days comes in a variety of forms.

The Federal Workers Alliance (FWA), a coalition of 20 unions that represent federal employees, has launched an online message board where workers can describe how furloughs would affect them.

The message board went up Friday and can be found here.

“The Federal Workers Alliance launched this board to elevate the conversations going on at federal facilities all across the country. In small towns and big cities across America, federal employees are anxious about whether or not they’ll have a job to come back to full time,” said FWA spokesman Cory K. Bythrow. “This is more than just a federal worker conversation — it’s a national conversation about how our government serves the people. … Our mission is to share their stories with Congress and the White House so they realize just how high the stakes are for these workers, their families and their communities. Federal employees’ opinions matter, and we want every elected official in Washington to know it.”

One post among many on the message board expresses the frustration federal employees feel as the deadline nears: “30 years ago I swore an oath of office as a federal employee. And for 30 years I have upheld that oath. I agreed to lower than industry wages for years; I was grateful for the attempt at locality pay (never quite caught up in Boston); I have even endured the recent lack of cost-of-living increases and the disappearance of ‘bonuses’ for going above and beyond; I am at the end of my rope. This is going to HURT! And I may even end up losing my house. Really? This is what 30 years of service bought me?”

Many readers have responded to Federal Diary columns about furloughs, including this particularly telling letter, which has been edited, from an employee with the Defense Department. The Pentagon says almost 800,000 of its workers could lose up to 20 percent of their pay through furloughs.

I’m a federal attorney and the loss of income will most certainly impact me, but I admit it will be easier for me to bear than those who are paid less than I. As these furloughs approach, I begin to worry about how I am going to get the work done. My calendar is full each and every day with meetings, deadlines for documents in court, phone calls to return, e-mails to answer, questions to clarify and answers to explain, reviews to be done, and trials to conduct. I work through lunch, barely have time to run to the restroom once a day, and never change my page-a-day calendar.....I just don’t have time.

If 8 hours is taken from my week, I have no idea just how the government expects the work to be done. I am pretty sure that an administrative judge is not going to take too kindly to my missing judge-imposed deadlines. I am going to tell a judge that I can’t respond to that Order to Show Cause because I have four others that were issued before hers and I simply don’t have the time? I am going to tell a judge that I wasn’t able to get discovery documentation to opposing counsel within the time limits he set because I have only 32 hours a week instead of 40 ?

Sure, I can TELL them that, but it isn’t going to do much except elicit a reprimand from the court, perhaps an adverse inference in my case, and the possibility of sanctions against the government. (And, for the record, I don’t work a 40 hour week — I work much more than that.)

A judge will simply take the position that my lack of time and resources is not her problem.

And it’s not. But it will certainly be mine, and the government is taking no steps to determine what work could NOT be done. The truth of the matter is that the government will, for office workers like myself, expect us to compress 40 hours into 32. We will be expected to double-down when we come back from a furloughed day and get it all done . . . thereby proving to the private sector that we are underworked. I don’t know that it can be done — not in my work, not in the work of the people who rely on my work, and not in the work that is done on the blue collar side of the installation.

We’ve been doing “more with less” for so long, I am pretty sure we can’t do “something with nothing.”

It’s easy for the private sector to say that we are overpaid and lazy. It allows them to stop any further examination of what is going on.

Telin W. Ozier

To get a little relief from all the depressing news about budget cuts, Active Cultures Theatre presented “.govaculture,” a series of one-minute plays about working for the federal government at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last week.

One skit was particularly relevant given the gloomy state of the government’s finances. Here are the lyrics to “Furlough Blues,” written by Kevin Finkelstein, a former government contractor.

I got the furlough blues

I got the furlough blues

And now I’m sitting here, shining my shoes

The Forest Service said no,

Go home, we have no more dough

They even took my official poncho

I’m sick of Jeopardy,

The View, Dr. Phil and Maury

I’m going to throw out my TV

I got the furlough blues

I got the furlough blues

And now I’m sitting here, shining my shoes

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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