Furloughs for federal workers still likely in new stopgap budget

March 17, 2013

The stopgap budget Congress is likely to pass this week to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year gives a few agencies flexibility to address spending priorities.

But by locking in $85 billion in across-the-board cuts known as the sequester until Sept. 30, the plan is unlikely to stop the furloughs of more than a million federal employees — some for as many as 22 days, according to congressional, agency and union officials.

The version of the plan approved by the House — known as a continuing resolution— allows the Defense Department to address its current spending needs, rather than rely on plans that have become outdated. The Senate is expected to allow that flexibility in a few additional areas: Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security and scientific areas such as the National Institutes of Health.

Both bills avoid another partisan showdown in Congress over fiscal issues and keep the government going once the current stopgap budget expires March 27. By rebalancing some spending, the new plans would cushion the effects of the sequester, since unspent money from last year could now be used.

But neither plan restores funding lost to the automatic cuts or gives agency heads new authority to shift money from program to program to help manage their effects.

The Pentagon, for example, would add $10.4 billion to its operations and maintenance budget, where shortfalls have led to plans to curtail training, suspend some maintenance work and other steps that commanders fear would take a toll on force readiness.

The money would be offset with other defense cuts.

But the military will still absorb half of the sequester reductions. The furlough notices that Defense officials have sent to the majority of the department’s 800,000 civilian employees — announcing up to 22 unpaid days to begin one day a week in April — are not likely to be rescinded.

“I don’t think federal defense civilians should think the department’s troubles are over,” said a Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly since the stopgap budget is not final.

“We’re enthusiastic about the possibility of seeing an appropriation,” the official said, “but we’re not there with furloughs.”

Agriculture Department spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said 9,212 meat inspectors would still be forced to take 11 unpaid days starting in July, spreading them out until the fiscal year ends. The $53 million in sequester cuts to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which spends about 87 percent of its budget on personnel, would not be offset by new flexibility.

Agriculture and Defense are two of the many departments and agencies planning furloughs. In recent days, formal notices have been sent to employees at the Justice Department (116,000 employees); the Environmental Protection Agency (17,000) the Federal Aviation Administration (47,000), the Labor Department (4,700), Customs and Border Protection (60,000), the Office of Management and Budget (480) and the National Labor Relations Board (1,600).

Others saying that they plan furloughs are the Internal Revenue Service, Education Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Interior Department and the federal courts.

This will be the first time that furloughs across the federal government will occur with no chance that lost pay will be recovered.

Federal labor unions and agency managers are bargaining over how and when to carry out the furloughs. Unions cannot determine who in each agency must take them, but they are trying to soften the pain of unpaid days, which could slash federal pay by up to 20 percent this fiscal year. Employees in some states will be eligible for short-term unemployment.

“Right now we’re telling our members to negotiate with management for the best possible furlough arrangement,” said Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents 25,000 federal workers, mostly employed by the military.

The stopgap budget funds 21,370 border patrol agents, sustaining increased levels approved by Congress three years ago, and another 21,775 customs officers working at ports of entry. But that does not mean the agents cannot be furloughed.

The union representing them said the mandate to maintain staffing levels requires the agency to fill vacancies, leaving less money to limit furloughs.

“There is slightly more money included for Customs and Border Protection in both versions of the [continuing resolution], but it is likely it will not be enough to end the furloughs,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

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Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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