And that helps explain how, without a deal in Congress to stop it soon, the austerity program known as sequestration will probably be felt by the American public.
Meat and poultry inspectors, park rangers, air traffic controllers — their jobs are routine, monitoring meat production, answering park visitors’ questions and making sure planes don’t collide in the air.
In other corners of the vast federal bureaucracy, where researchers peer through microscopes and program managers oversee information technology contracts and award grants, the 5.1 percent automatic cuts could reshape priorities. The public probably won’t notice the changes quickly.
But for those agencies where salaries and benefits account for as much as 80 percent of the budget — including hundreds of millions in overtime — the toll on public services in many cases will be unavoidable.
“We don’t give grants,” said Brian Mabry, spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which plans to furlough much of its workforce of 10,000 for 15 days if the political stalemate over the deficit lingers.
“We can’t just stop programs,” Mabry said. “People are saying, ‘Why can’t you just send home all the personnel people and not the inspectors?’ Well, there’s no way to get from here to there without that.”
That’s why the food service says the cuts could jack up the price of meat at the supermarket:
The agency is on track to lose more than $50 million from its $1 billion budget. It must shrink the budget over the seven remaining months of the fiscal year. That means a hit of closer to 9 percent. Because inspectors make up 87 percent of the food safety budget, furloughs are the best option.
But meat and poultry slaughter and processing are among the country’s most intensively regulated industries, requiring carcass-by-carcass inspections. A veterinarian makes sure the animal is healthy and the killing is done humanely; an inspector tests the flesh for bacteria and another makes sure the knife cutting the carcass is clean. All must be on the premises at all times.
That’s why one furloughed inspector could shutter an entire plant during a shift.
The number of inspectors on an eight-hour shift could be one at a small operation or two dozen at a large one. Food safety officials predict 20 million hours of unpaid leave until Sept. 30.
“It’s not that we’re going to produce less-safe meat,” said Janet Riley, a senior vice president at the American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying group in Washington. “It’s that we’re going to produce less meat.”
The institute said the food service should be able to pull inspectors from district offices or even Washington headquarters to keep plants open.