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As ‘fiscal cliff’ deadline nears, OPM updates furlough guidelines

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With talks on averting the “fiscal cliff” apparently stalled, the Office of Personnel Management posted new guidance to federal workers for administrative furloughs on its Web site Thursday afternoon.

“We wanted to take some prudent steps to keep federal employees informed in case of an order for sequestration,” said Thomas Richards, OPM’s communications director.

He added that the guidelines were not issued as “a reaction to any specific action” involving the talks between President Obama and congressional leaders.

“It’s nothing more than that,” Richards said.

Nonetheless, after months of the White House expressing confidence that the standoff would be resolved before a crisis hit and that furloughs would be unnecessary, the guidance reflects the reality that little time remains on the calendar to avert the automatic cuts that will be triggered by a failure to reach a deal by the year’s end.

Obama returned to Washington from Hawaii on Thursday in an effort to keep the talks alive. As the deadline approaches, federal workers have grown increasingly worried about the potential threat to their jobs.

The guidance notes that “agencies are responsible for identifying the employees affected by administrative furloughs based on budget conditions, funding sources, mission priorities (including the need to perform emergency work involving the safety of human life or protection of property), and other factors.”

Employees will be given a minimum 60-day notice before any furlough of longer than 22 days takes place, according to the document. A 30-day notice will be given for shorter furloughs.

The guidance also specifies that employees may not take other forms of paid time off, including annual or sick leave, in lieu of being furloughed. Nor is an employee allowed to volunteer to do his or her job for free, unless otherwise authorized by law.

The guidelines are updated from a previous version issued in April by OPM in response to the possibility of a government shutdown at the time.

“The policy folks are diving down deep into the weeds,” Richards said. “We wanted to make sure the guidelines were up to date to reflect the possibility of sequestration.”

Richards said the OPM will soon post answers to frequently asked questions on the agency’s Web site (opm.gov/furlough).

“It will be questions like, ‘Do I need to show up for work on January 2nd? Yes, you do,’ ” Richards said.

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