Furloughs in personnel-heavy agencies could affect public services

Video: President Barack Obama warned Friday that the pain of the sequester “will be real.”He called the steep budget cuts “dumb” and “arbitrary” in a news conference following a meeting with Congressional leaders that failed to produce a solution to the budget impasse.

This much is clear about the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in Friday: Not all federal agencies are created equal.

Those with the heaviest personnel costs are most likely to start furloughing workers a month from now. They’re the employees on the government’s front lines, serving the public at airports, national parks, on the border.

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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.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week he would try to stagger the furloughs. But he said the country’s meat supply would be affected if even some of the 6,290 plants shut down a day or two a week, triggering spot shortages and pushing up prices.

Like other personnel-heavy departments, the food safety service did not have much wiggle room to prepare for the cuts. Bills are paid on a month-to-month cycle. By now, about 40 percent of this year’s budget is spent.

This amplifies the cuts, which must be taken equally from every “program, project and activity,” according to the sequestration law. Some managers have flexibility in these accounts, but not many, budget experts say.

President Obama has recently appeared with frontline workers to make the case that cuts will be disruptive to critical services. Republicans have called the predictions of dire services cuts so much hype.

About 71 percent of the Federal Aviation Administration budget covers salaries for controllers and safety inspectors. Furloughs could mean closed airport towers and flight delays, officials have said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the committee that oversees the FAA, isn’t convinced. “We take issue with the fact that this has to be an all-or-nothing proposition,” he said.

Another advocate of smaller government, Chris Edwards, a budget expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said, “I don’t think there’s any dispute about the furloughs.”

His solution to diminished services? Let private companies or state and local governments provide them. “Let’s untether these life-or-death services from the uncertainty of federal budgeting,” he said.

The Transportation Security Administration, which must save about $398 million, could furlough 50,000 employees for as many as seven days and cut overtime, Director John Pistole said this week. The longer the cuts drag on, the longer the airport lines, he said.

The high-turnover agency also will not be able to backfill most jobs. Some officials have estimated that the equivalent of 7,200 of 45,000 jobs would disappear under the cuts. A third of the workforce are part-timers.

About 300 officers shepherd passengers through security lines at Pittsburgh International and five smaller airports nearby. Three eight-hour shifts start at 4 a.m. Pittsburgh has two checkpoints with 10 security lanes, and anywhere from 50 to 70 officers to staff them, according to union officials.

“We’re running good if all 10 lanes are open,” said Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert, president of the American Federation of Government Workers Local 332 in Pittsburgh.

“But if people are furloughed and some are on vacation or sick days, we might have seven or eight lanes,” she said. “There will be less people on the floor. When there’s a push of passengers, you would feel that.”

Marsha Catron, a TSA spokeswoman, said travelers “will likely not see immediate impacts” from the cuts.

But if they continue, the hiring freeze would create 1,000 vacancies by Memorial Day and an additional 1,600 by September. During busy travel periods, passengers traveling at non-peak hours could spend 30 minutes getting through security. During peak times, the wait may hit more than an hour, she said.

Agencies say they already have reduced travel and training, put off contracts and frozen hiring.

At the National Park Service, the only thing remaining are people, spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. “It’s visitor service. We educate the public. There’s nothing left to cut.”

The Mall will lose $1.7 million from its $32 million budget. This is unlikely to hinder the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival, which is largely privately funded. But it will mean fewer portable toilets and park police and less grounds maintenance for thousands of other special events on the Mall, from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August, Johnson said.

Many of these are staffed through seasonal employees and overtime, which hit $770,000 for the Mall last year and now will have to be scaled back.

“We’re not talking about overtime for the sake of overtime,” Johnson said. “We do not have a lot of fat to begin with.”

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