Furloughs underway, but uncertainty remains for many workers

April 21, 2013

After months of nervous anticipation, federal workers begin the first major round of furloughs this week, even as much uncertainty remains at some agencies about how much time, if any, employees will lose from their jobs because of mandated spending cuts.

About 17,000 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency also face furloughs beginning this week, as do 480 employees of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

But the Transportation Security Administration, which had warned that it would need to furlough 50,000 officers from their jobs protecting airline travel, said last week that the agency no longer expects to take employees off the job.

The Federal Aviation Administration was not so fortunate.

The agency’s plans to furlough 47,000 workers, including air traffic controllers, for up to 11 days through the end of September were set in motion Sunday in spite of a lawsuit filed by two airline trade associations and the Airline Pilots Association Friday meant to halt the days of unpaid leave. The case may be heard this week.

Both the FAA and its plaintiffs said they were concerned about air travel disruption and safety.

Airport delays

While not citing furloughs specifically, the FAA reported significant delays at New York area airports Sunday afternoon and evening. Problems at La Guardia were the result of staffing issues and “compacted demand,” the agency said. A series of flights on the well-trod route between that airport and Washington’s Reagan National Airport, popular with politicians and executives, were delayed Sunday.

Newark International Airport faced delays as well. Gate holds, taxi delays and traffic management procedures were affecting departures, the FAA said. But the bulk of flights in and out of National, Washington Dulles and BWI Marshall were listed as being on time.

“I’m not really looking forward to a 10 percent pay cut,” said Steve Abraham, a controller at New York’s Kennedy Airport who begins his first furlough day on Wednesday.

“It’s frustrating, plus we’re being put in a situation of being shorthanded at the busiest time of the year,” added Abraham, who has worked as a controller for 24 years and said morale among his colleagues has plummeted.

Employees at agencies including Defense, Labor and the EPA recently have had their furlough days reduced, though uncertainty remains for some.

Defense officials said that no final decisions have been made about furloughs for the department’s 800,000 civilian employees. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee last week that “hopefully we won’t have to” furlough employees. He added that the department hopes to “at least minimize it.”

The department, which has already lowered the number of expected furlough days to 14 from 21, is examining whether a further reduction is possible. “Maybe we can get better, maybe we can’t,” Hagel told the committee.

Hagel “has asked that we take another close look at furloughs, and we are in the process of doing that,” Defense Department Comptroller Robert F. Hale told Pentagon employees Thursday.

New financial calculations

Officials attribute the changed furlough forecasts to new financial calculations made after Congress passed a short-term spending bill last month that has mitigated some of the effects of the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.

EPA officials said employees now face fewer than 10 days of furlough, rather than the 13 days the agency had warned. “I do want to report that the number of furlough hours can be reduced,” Bob Perciasepe, acting administrator for the agency, told employees in a memo April 9.

The EPA will “revisit our budget” in mid-June, Perciasepe added, “but as of now it will not be more than 79 hours.”

Labor, which had said that 4,700 employees would face six days of furloughs, now says that 4,000 workers will be furloughed an average of five days. “This is a very fluid situation,” said Stephen Barr, a department spokesman.

Though the trend has been decidedly downward, the uncertainty has been wearing for many federal workers. “Employees are frustrated and angry,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which estimates that 115,000 of the workers it represents face a loss of pay ranging from one week to nearly three weeks over the next five months.

“In some cases, they make contingency plans and then the information changes again,” Kelley added. “In most cases, they have no flexibility in choosing days to address family or financial needs, such as scheduling day care or avoiding furlough days during periods where there may be financial strains.”

Even with the reduced number of furlough days expected, the lost pay will hit many federal workers hard, union representatives said.

“For some people, it’s a very big deal,” said Charles Orzehoskie, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ local representing EPA workers. “Some people will have trouble making mortgage payments. Some people will have trouble making car payments. There’s a lot of anxiety about this.”

Some federal employees have already begun furloughs, including some Labor employees who opted to waive the required 30-day notice period so they could start their furloughs immediately.

Orzehoskie said morale at the EPA has suffered, both from the prospect of losing pay and public vilification of federal workers.

“I don’t think it’s ever been this bad, and it’s getting worse,” Orzehoskie said. “Being denigrated, attacked financially — yeah, it affects performance.”

A part-time job

One Labor employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her job, said she decided to begin her furlough so she could begin work at a part-time retail job. “I really don’t make a lot of money, and I knew it was going to cause a strain on me,” she said.

Other federal employees are expected to start their furloughs in coming weeks, including 8,400 employees from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, up to 80,000 Internal Revenue Service employees, and 12,000 employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The IRS told its workers Friday that their first furlough day will be May 24, with up to six more days through September. All operations dealing with the public, including taxpayer assistance centers, will be closed.

“We know what a big financial impact losing a day of pay can mean,” the acting IRS commissioner, Steve Miller, told employees in a memo. “We wanted to make sure there is only one furlough day a pay period, and we have also worked to stagger the dates further so that there are some pay periods during the summer with no furlough days.”

Furloughs for some U.S. Park Police personnel are also to begin this week.

“We’ll continue to meet our public safety and security obligations,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

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Mike Laris contributed to this report.

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