Federal employee furloughs begin

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 22, 2013

Federal employee furlough policies are like snowflakes.

No two are just alike.

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

Labor Department employees have already begun taking their unpaid leave, part of the government’s cost-cutting hatchet known as the sequester. Labor, unlike some other agencies, provides maximum flexibility to its employees, allowing them to take furlough time in half-day increments. The number of unpaid days varies among Labor Department components, ranging from one to eight.

“They can take it in four-hour chunks,” said Eleanor Lauderdale, executive vice president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 12. “We were trying to say, ‘Let’s make it as gentle as possible. Let people work it into their schedules.’”

Not only into their schedules but also into their budgets.

“I’m spreading it out over 10 pay periods,” four hours at a time, said Bruce Andersen, a Labor policy analyst. The total will equal five workdays. He’s doing it that way “to take the [financial] hit in smaller doses.”

The toll on federal employees is more than a financial hit. There is an emotional cost, a worry that children, especially, can’t understand.

“My son asked me the other day if we are going to be okay,” Andersen said.

The family lives in Takoma Park, a community, like most in the D.C. area, with many federal families. His 8-year-old boy had heard stories about the government closing and workers being sent home. All of that isn’t exactly right, though in some cases it’s not too far from the truth. But correct or not, it is difficult for parents to protect children from the worry that stories like that cause, the “dread hanging over them,” as Andersen put it.

“I told him things would be okay,” Andersen said. “We would get through it together as a family and no one was losing their jobs.”

Another Labor Department employee, Freddie Sconce, decided to take his five days together. “My decision was based on having a continuous period of time devoted specifically to preparation for the PMP [project management professional] certification exam,” he said.

Labor’s furlough flexibility is not the case everywhere. In a Friday morning note to staff, acting Commissioner Steve Miller of the Internal Revenue Service said: “The first furlough days will be May 24, June 14, July 5, July 22 and August 30, with another two days possible in August or September. All public-facing operations will be closed on these dates, including our toll-free operations and Taxpayer Assistance Centers.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union which represents IRS workers, said the agency was not interested in negotiating over the furloughs, as other agencies did. “They took the position they have the right to close the agency,” she said, which is what will happen on furlough days save for a few critical operations.

The IRS declined to comment. The notice sent to employees, however, said management “had to make tough decisions on the furlough dates and the best way to implement them. . . . We settled on having uniform furlough dates for everyone and closing down agency operations entirely. This way, the IRS can gain additional cost savings on utilities and other services in our work locations.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a similar plan, also shutting offices across the country on seven nonconsecutive days starting May 10. HUD officials considered offering employees flexibility in scheduling their unpaid leave but decided that “this is not administratively feasible; the number of possible payroll errors is daunting,” according to a memo from Karen Newton Cole, HUD’s acting chief human capital officer, to Eddie Eitches, president of the AFGE Council 222 of HUD Locals.

Eitches said that there is no consensus among HUD employees preferring flexible furlough days or fixed days and that he’s proud of the overall agreement the union negotiated with the agency.

A major advantage to closing the agency on certain days, he said, was “to show to the public that sequestration is real.” There are additional savings “because most of those contractors paid through the salary and expenses budget would not be paid on furlough days. With flexibility, we would not reap this savings.”

Stefan Fuma, a computer programmer at Labor, used his furlough day Wednesday to take his wife to get a colonoscopy.

“I did my duty and didn’t have to take off for sick leave,” he said.

Fuma, a 71-year-old Navy vet, gets Social Security payments in addition to his salary, so losing 10 days of pay won’t hurt him as much as lower-income workers.

“I’m fortunate,” he said. “Fortunate I’m alive, fortunate I’m not in need.”

Though government service is bound to suffer from the sequester, “it would be unfair to think the world has stopped and that the Earth would stop turning” because he will miss two work weeks, one day at at time, Fuma said.

He volunteered to work some furlough days, he said, “so some young mother would not have to take so much time” off.

Apparently, that was too big a bureaucratic headache for the department to handle.

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

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