Federal review board overwhelmed with furlough appeals

August 15, 2013

Furlough appeals continued to arrive this week at the Merit Systems Protection Board, with filings from Defense Department employees making up at least 90 percent of the 33,000 cases the small agency must process.

“Furloughs are obviously taking a lot of our time,” said MSPB general counsel Brian Polisuk, who noted that the agency received only about 6,000 claims of any variety last year.

The tally of appeals from Defense Department employees climbed to nearly 30,000 on Thursday, more than doubling the amount from Aug. 2, when the review panel announced it would postpone rulings in those cases to figure out how to handle them efficiently.

Labor groups encouraged federal employees to file appeals about their furloughs as a message to Washington that “we’re not going to just roll over and take this lying down,” as a lawyer for the American Federation of Government Employees told The Washington Post last month.

AFGE President J. David Cox said Thursday that the MSPB’s decision to delay adjudication is “understandable” considering the avalanche of claims. “The extraordinary number of MSPB appeals is another example of the broad scope of economic harm that sequestration has inflicted on working Americans,” he said.

Cox indicated that the union is no longer pushing its members to file more appeals, noting that the Aug. 8 submission deadline has passed.

With the deadline over, MSPB said the volume is just beginning to slow down. Polisuk said that between 200 and 300 appeals had arrived as late as Wednesday, although he added he was unsure how many were furlough-related.

The agency, which has about 200 employees, announced this month that it would postpone action on appeals from defense employees “until we have a better understanding of the claims being raised, the work locations of the appellants, the MSPB offices in which the appeals have been filed, and whether or not the appellants are represented.”

Board Chairman Susan Grundmann told The Post last week that the agency is considering whether to treat appeals as class action cases based on common questions that appellants have posed, such as what measures agencies used to avoid unpaid leave and why some departments furloughed some employees and spared others.

The agency is also trying to determine whether certain claims could be grouped together so one deciding official could testify about multiple cases, Grundmann said.

Defense workers carried one of the heaviest burdens for forced unpaid leave under the automatic spending reductions known as the sequester. The Pentagon is furloughing 640,000 civilian employees for six days as part of its cost-cutting plan.

The Defense Department initially anticipated 22 furlough days, but it dropped the number to 14, then 11 and finally six days after Congress granted the agency more budgeting flexibility.

MSPB, which has eight offices nationwide, is still processing appeals from employees who work at federal agencies outside the Defense Department, including Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal employees have a right to appeal furloughs, as well as to present their case and question agency witnesses at a hearing.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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