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Federal workers fret about jobs as sequestration looms

By and Timothy R. Smith,

Lawyer Lynnette Rodgers faced a choice last year as she weighed job offers, one from the Social Security Administration and a second from the Cuyahoga County government in Ohio, where she lived.

The county job would keep her close to home, while moving to the Washington area would have her paying about twice as much for housing. But Rodgers took the federal job, she said, because she thought she could make a difference in the lives of more people.

Now, with the threat of sequestration hanging over the federal government, she is worried about whether she made the right choice.

During a two-year job search, Rodgers wiped out her savings to support herself. A layoff or unemployment could devastate her finances. “I don’t have enough reserve built up to take a furlough right now,” Rodgers said. “I gave away all of my furniture to get down here.”

Her worries are shared by workers in many corners of the federal government, where concern is simmering over the automatic cuts that will be implemented by law in the event that Congress does not act.

“I think they’re concerned but not panicking,” said Beth Moten, director of legislative and political affairs for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.

Moten said that most federal employees as well as the union believe that despite hyper-partisan exchanges in Washington, the political parties will come to some agreement to defuse the crisis before the Jan. 2 deadline.

The Obama administration, locked in a political game of chicken with congressional Republicans, has issued few details about how sequestration would be implemented, instead insisting that Congress resolve the standoff.

“We’re not getting a lot of information from the agencies about what would happen,” Moten said.

A July 31 memo to the heads of federal department and agencies from Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that the amount of money that would be cut from agencies cannot be calculated until the fiscal 2013 budget is approved.

“In the meantime, agencies should continue normal spending and operations since more than 5 months remain for Congress to act,” Zients wrote.

The “Sequestration Transparency Act,” signed Aug. 7 by the president, requires the administration to submit, within 30 days of enactment, a detailed report on the effect the action would have on the federal government, including reductions at the program, project and activity level.

Sequestration would require cuts of more than $100 billion next year, an amount that could translate to 10 percent of defense spending and 8 percent of non-defense discretionary spending.

A few areas have been listed as safe. Pay for uniformed military personnel would not be cut as part of sequestration, the OMB has said. But despite White House assurances this spring that all programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs would be protected from sequestration, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said last month that the department’s administrative costs are not exempt.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the House Armed Services Committee recently that the Pentagon probably would release temporary employees and impose a partial hiring freeze or unpaid furloughs if sequestration is imposed.

A critical factor in determining how sequestration would play out will be whether the administration allows the cuts to be imposed blindly across all federal activities or whether more exemptions will be established.

“That is a real question,” said Max Stier, president and executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “Will they go with an across-the-board haircut or protect higher-priority programs?”

A July 25 report prepared by the Senate Appropriations Committee majority staff for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) warned that sequestration “would have destructive impacts on the whole array of Federal activities,” among them education, job training, medical research, child care, worker safety, food safety, national parks, border security and air travel.

Stier said uncertainty over sequestration has already harmed the effectiveness of federal workers.

“It presents a real dilemma to the federal workforce in terms of doing their planning, with people wondering: Will they have a job? Will they have the same colleagues?” he said. “Uncertainty is not a good thing in the workplace.”

“If the end goal is to reduce the cost of government, we’re choosing a bad way to do it,” Stier said. “The process itself is hurting good government.”

Former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine, the state’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, told a political forum in Arlington County this month that “feds feel like they’re being attacked” on sequestration.

Barbara Jackson, a 43-year employee of the Social Security Administration, said the situation is more alarming than during the 1995 government shutdown. “Back then, I wasn’t as worried about a furlough because the economy was better,” said Jackson, who attended the forum along with her colleague Lynnette Rodgers. “Now, in essence, we have the biggest recession since the Great Depression.”

Jackson said she is most concerned about younger federal workers, many of whom “are saddled with student loans.”

Betty Coll, an employee at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a former chapter president of the National Treasury Employees Union, expressed unhappiness with the criticism that federal employees receive from legislators.

“Federal employees need friends on Capitol Hill,” she said, adding that the rhetoric “drowns out the good work federal employees do.”

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