This is the uncertain and uneven landscape of the furloughs that in less than three weeks will begin to affect more than half of the nation’s 2 million federal employees.
The budget ax was supposed to fall across the board but hardly does so, federal workers are learning. And the situation is quickly splitting the workforce into haves and have-nots, inflaming labor-management tensions and straining agency resources as everyone struggles through the details.
Some agencies are benefiting from exceptions Congress carved out in its stopgap plan to keep the government going through Sept. 30. Lawmakers gave other agencies, including the Defense Department, authority to move money around. This allowed the Pentagon to offer a bit of relief to its 750,000 civilians.
Meanwhile, other employees wait to learn their fates as managers fine-tune plans or complete their bargaining with unions.
And late Thursday, as if to underscore the uncertainty, more than 100,000 Justice Department employees learned that they will have to wait until mid-April to find out whether they will be furloughed. They had been told in February to expect 14 unpaid days. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., noting that workers “may be anxious” about lost pay, said Thursday that he needed time to assess the stopgap budget. The Justice Department last Friday eliminated furloughs for more than 3,500 prison staffers.
“I think the only ones who might be happy about this are employees who have used their leave for family or personal reasons and need more time off,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the labor organizations negotiating with federal agencies.
The news out of the Pentagon on Thursday brings relief to civilian defense workers after weeks of anxiety. Nonetheless, it is a bitter pill.
“Do you want to know why we’re upset?” asked Betsey Brannen, who does children’s programming at the library at Fort Bragg, N.C. “We’ve supported our president through thick and thin. We watch the White House and Congress go back and forth on the budget. And then we are told to prepare for furloughs.”
Brannen, whose husband is an active-duty ordnance technician, makes $30,000 a year. Because of furloughs, the library is looking at closing one day a week, along with the day-care center on the base where her 3-year-old goes when her mother is at work.
“I understand that there’s a lot of wasted money [in the military] all around,” Brannen said. “But to throw this all on civilians is very frustrating.”
The reprieve quickly led to finger-pointing from unions and critics, who say any furloughs are unnecessary. Some services had considered eliminating them, but defense leaders concluded that the pain should be spread across the board, from rank-and-file to top managers.
Furloughs will be a lot more uneven at the Labor Department, which has mandated eight days off at the business operations center and offices of administrative law judges, two days at the solicitor’s office, five days at the Employment and Training Administration, six days at the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, and 10 days at the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.
There will be no furloughs for employees working in labor statistics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
This patchwork is largely because Labor has more than 20 sources of funding, including industry-paid fees and fines. The sequestration law does not allow managers to reassign money from one department to allow another to cancel its furlough days.
Besides offering some exceptions to the rigid sequester rules, Congress boosted the Agriculture Department’s food safety service treasury by $55 million, enough to eliminate furloughs for 10,000 meat inspectors. Their potential absence from assembly lines had prompted a sustained campaign by the meat lobby and Secretary Tom Vilsack to spare them on the grounds that a vital industry would be decimated.
The Federal Aviation Administration didn’t make out as well, despite efforts by several lawmakers. Its up to 11 days of furloughs will proceed. The union representing air-traffic controllers says it will continue its campaign to warn the public that the absences will compromise air safety.
Customs and Border Protection agents are hoping to receive the same consideration as meat inspectors and prison staffers after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared that the nation would be “less safe” if they are furloughed.
The agency told union leaders this week that it may forgo furloughs but continue with plans to cut most overtime for Border Patrol agents, labor officials said. The agents oppose any overtime reductions.
“They’re going to shape the message and look like they’re doing something about the budget cuts if they eliminate furloughs,” said Shawn Moran of the National Border Patrol Council. He said furloughs would hurt border security less than the loss of overtime pay.
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that Customs and Border Protection officials are “working diligently to analyze” the stopgap budget and come up with a plan that minimizes the sequester’s impact.
There has been some recognition on both sides of the negotiating table that Congress, not federal managers, is behind the disruption that the furloughs will create. But tension is high at the Environmental Protection Agency, where the American Federal of Government Employees filed an unfair labor practice complaint this week after management said the union’s demand to bargain over some issues arrived too late and rejected it. An EPA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Labor has won some victories, though. Most agreements guarantee that an employee’s performance review will not be downgraded for project delays, for example. Telework has been protected. When possible, employees can choose their days off as long as their supervisor agrees, and seniority will determine who gets to take Mondays and Fridays. HUD reduced furloughs from 13 days to seven and then decided it would close the agency on those unpaid days.
“The Department has over 9,000 employees,” Karen Newton Cole, the agency’s chief human capital officer, wrote in a memo to the AFGE, which represents HUD workers.
“Multiplying the number of employees by seven days would mean that there would be 63,000 scheduling decisions that would need to be made over a 6-month period.”
Allowing employees to choose furlough days is “not administratively feasible,” Cole wrote, and could lead to a “daunting” number of payroll errors.
Agency managers have agreed to speed up the approval process for outside employment, though a request by an Air Force base in Minot, N.D., for separate weeks off so its employees could get temporary work in the nearby booming oil town was denied.
Employees can donate days to ease their colleagues’ load, but they cannot choose which colleagues.
Park Police woes
Among the law enforcement employees who will not get a break are the Park Police. The department must slice $5 million from its $102 million budget and said it must furlough all 767 employees for 14 days. This is in contrast to the parks themselves, with the National Park Service freezing seasonal and permanent hires and making other cuts to avoid furloughs.
Officer Dave Nichols, who patrols Washington’s monuments on horseback, said furloughs will cost him $5,000. Among his biggest concerns about losing pay is his wife, a teacher in Calvert County and two-time breast cancer survivor. He worries about another health scare. The couple are reassessing whether they can afford the family’s annual North Carolina beach vacation this year and still set aside money for their daughters’ college fund.
“It’s extremely surprising to me that the officers who patrol the major parkways and national icons downtown are not considered essential during this sequestration,” Nichols said. “When you go into law enforcement, it’s drilled into you that you’re an essential employee.”
Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said he’s not happy with the inequity, either.
“If we could, we would spread their budget cut across the Park Service,” he said in a statement. “We can’t do that.”
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