And while merit board judges typically hear challenges from civil servants who have been demoted, fired or retaliated against for whistleblowing, the overwhelming majority of the recent petitions are from Defense Department civilians. Starting July 8, 650,000 Defense employees took the first of 11 furlough days required as part of the $85 billion in budget cuts across government known as sequestration.
“The message here is, we’re not going to just roll over and take this lying down,” said David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. “We’re just getting started.”
The AFGE and other unions are holding workshops across the country to instruct members how to file appeals that seek to cancel the furloughs and award back pay. Several unions have asked the merit board to consider some appeals as class-action cases.
In addition to Defense employees, workers have appealed from the Internal Revenue Service; the departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development and Interior; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. In all, about 775,000 federal workers face furloughs of four to 15 days before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Fix is up to Congress
A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said it is up to Congress to replace the sequester.
“Because of the sequestration, agencies are being forced to make very difficult decisions, including the use of furloughs, as a means to achieve the spending levels required by Congress,” spokesman Steve Posner said in a statement.
“It is not too late for Congress to fix the sequester and avoid more unnecessary damage to families and to the economy,” he said.
Some employees are claiming that their job responsibilities are comparable to those of colleagues who were exempted from furloughs; others say their agency discriminated against them. But for the most part, they are arguing that the furloughs are adverse actions the government took without sufficient cause to make its mandated budget cuts.
The agencies could have made deeper cuts to programs and contracts instead, the employees say. As evidence, some cited statements by Navy officials in April that they could eliminate furloughs for about 201,000 Navy and Marine Corps civilians by shifting money in the budget. Leaders of other smaller departments in Defense said they could do the same.
But Pentagon officials insisted that furloughs be spread across all Defense agencies to share the pain.
“We have looked at all options to meet these cuts and believe one option must, unfortunately, be furloughs,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense spokesman, noting that civilian pay takes up more than a third of the agency’s operating budget. “The guiding principle . . . was the preservation of the readiness of the force to accomplish the department’s mission to ensure our national security.”