“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

— East African proverb

As the White House and Congress, Republicans and Democrats, trade blows over who is at fault for the looming across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, it is federal workers who will get hit.

With Congress appearing incapable of avoiding $85 billion in automatic cuts by the March 1 deadline, agencies are preparing to force unpaid furlough days on workers that could cost them up to a fifth of their pay.

Those workers must be asking themselves what would happen if they missed such an important deadline, for the second time in as many months. They know what would happen, but the staff can’t punish Congress, no matter how much that might be warranted.

In a notice to employees Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he is “deeply concerned about the potential direct impact of sequestration on you and your families,” before warning them that should “sequestration occur and continue for a substantial period, DoD will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian workforce on administrative furlough.”

About 800,000 Defense Department civilians could face 22 unpaid leave days, spread out over as many weeks, amounting to a 20 percent pay cut over that period.

Because work requirements will not fall, Panetta said in a letter to the Senate, “the workload on each employee . . . will be increased beyond what can reasonably be achieved.”

Although Panetta had previously announced the number of furloughs, the department’s latest notice made J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, hot.

“These employees aren’t some fat cat bureaucrats in a plush Washington office,” he said. “They are the firefighters who safeguard our bases, the health-care professionals who treat injured soldiers in military hospitals, the mechanics who repair our tanks and planes, the logistics personnel who ensure supplies make it to our troops, the acquisition experts who prevent big defense contractors from ripping off taxpayers.”

He urged “Congress to find a solution to this manufactured crisis that does not punish our hard-working federal employees, cripple our economic recovery or gut federal programs and services.”

In letters to Capitol Hill and labor organizations and in congressional testimony, other agencies also have informed lawmakers of the impact sequestration would have on employees, as well as services:

Agriculture: Plans to furlough about one-third of its workforce, which would lead to “a nationwide shutdown of meat and poultry plants during a furlough of inspection personnel.”

Commerce: “Up to 2,600 NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) employees would have to be furloughed, approximately 2,700 positions would not be filled, and the number of contractors would have to be reduced by about 1,400.” Census vacancies would remain vacant.

Justice: “The Department estimates that it would lose the equivalent of more than 1,000 federal agents . . . as well as 1,300 correctional officers.”

“The FBI is faced with furloughing all personnel, including agents and intelligence analysts, for up to 14 days, as well as implementing a hiring freeze. This would have the equivalent effect of cutting approximately 2,285 onboard employees, including 775 Special Agents.”

Among Justice agencies, nearly 36,700 Bureau of Prisons workers face furlough for an average of 12 days, 5,100 U.S. marshals for up to 13 days and all civil division employees for up to seven days.

Education: The sequester “would likely require the Department to furlough many of its own employees for multiple days.”

Energy: “Sequestration would affect thousands of jobs among Federal, contractor and grant awardee personnel.”

Homeland Security: “Sequestration would necessitate furloughs of up to 14 days for a significant portion of our frontline law enforcement personnel, and could potentially result in reductions in force at the Department.”

The Transportation Security Administration “would need to initiate a hiring freeze for all TSO [transportation security officer] positions in March, eliminate overtime, and furlough its 50,000 officers for up to seven days.”

Secret Service agents and uniform personnel would face furloughs of up to seven days.

“Beginning April 1, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] would have to reduce its work hours by the equivalent of over 5,000 Border Patrol agents and the equivalent of over 2,750 CBP Officers.”

CBP would “implement an agency-wide furlough of up to fourteen (14) non-consecutive work days for each employee.”

Housing and Urban Development: “Furloughs or other personnel actions may well be required to comply with cuts mandated by sequestration.”

Interior: Sequesters would limit the department’s “ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for firefighting, law enforcement and visitor services.”

NASA: Some inspector general vacancies would go unfilled.

National Science Foundation: The agency would have to cut nearly 1,000 research grants.

Social Security Administration: Sequestration would lead to more than 5,000 positions lost through attrition and termination of more than 1,500 temporary and other employees and a general elimination of overtime.

Transportation: The “vast majority” of the Federal Aviation Administration’s nearly 47,000 employees would be furloughed for about one day per pay period through September.

Treasury: “Most Treasury employees would face furloughs, which would have a cascading effect on employees’ families as well as on the economy at large. The effects would be particularly painful at the IRS. . . . Other bureaus would impose hiring freezes and cut costs such as travel and training, but “these actions would not be sufficient to avoid furloughs entirely as we already would be five months into the fiscal year.”

The cuts would be severe and unsparing.

The reaction of Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, spoke for many: “With the grave consequences so clear to so many people, organizations and vital government programs, it is hard to believe Congress will choose to pursue this wrong-headed course.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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