Public servants were out in force Tuesday, protesting potential federal budget cuts that would severely hinder their ability to serve the public.
Hours before the State of the Union address, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and other labor organizations gathered in a park across from the Capitol, where President Obama was scheduled to give his annual report to Congress.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, sequestration’s got to go,” the union members chanted, hoping the message would get through to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The workers were protesting the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, which will take effect March 1 unless Congress acts to prevent them. The reductions are designed to save $85 billion through the end of this fiscal year. To get there, agency budgets would be reduced by 9 percent, except for the Defense Department’s, which would take a 13 percent hit.
Employees in all agencies, except the Department of Veterans Affairs, would probably be required to take unpaid leave or furlough days.
“We’re trying like hell to stop it,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said before mounting a platform to address the rally. He was followed by AFSCME President Lee Saunders and AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka.
Looking at the crowd dressed in union colors, Cox noted the green and blue, then said: “Congress is looking at red. They want our blood.”
In the Capitol across the street, there was a sense of urgency that something must be done — which is not the same as optimism that something will be done. The workers want Congress to do its job, just as Congress expects federal workers to do theirs. They get their jobs done far better than the politicians on the Hill do.
“Here we are once again on the brink of a fiscal meltdown,” said a statement from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House’s second-ranking Democrat. His Maryland district is home to thousands of federal employees.
“It’s a game that has no winners, only losers, like the 14,000 teachers, assistants and other education staff who would lose their jobs, or the 125,000 families who would be at risk of losing their homes when our rental assistance program is cut, or the thousands of civilian defense personnel in my district alone and throughout this country who would be furloughed for up to 22 days during the year — and the hundreds of thousands around the country, across every service branch,” he said. “Not to mention the tens of thousands of defense contractors, critical to our national security who would be at risk of losing their jobs.”
Diminished service to the public was the theme of two federal employees who spoke about cutbacks already implemented by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the impact sequestration would have on Agriculture Department food inspections.
Because of reduced office hours for the public and cutbacks in overtime for the staff, “there’s a lot of people who are seeing their paychecks cut by $100 to $200 a paycheck,” said Pam Baca, an AFGE representative who works for the SSA in Trinidad, Colo.
For the public, she added, the reduced hours mean that “now the backlog is growing” for claims processing.
Trent Berhow, a U.S. Agriculture Department consumer-safety inspector and an AFGE officer in St. Joseph, Mo., said the planned cutbacks would mean “lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat, poultry and egg product supplies, higher prices, and food safety will be compromised.”
“The sequestration is horrible policy,” he continued. “I am here today with you, my brothers and sisters, to send a message to Congress: End this sequestration madness now!”
Food inspections demonstrate how a sequester could affect consumers and workers beyond the federal workforce. The USDA says the budget cuts could mean unpaid leave for up to 15 days for Food Safety and Inspection Service employees, including inspectors.
Without inspectors, production of meat, poultry and egg products would have to shut down. The USDA says that would affect about 6,290 facilities nationally, resulting in more than $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages for industry workers.
As the sequester, which would lead to pay-less days for federal workers, is being debated, so is legislation that would extend the freeze on their basic pay rates through the end of 2013. A vote on the bill, sponsored by a group of House Republicans, is planned for this week. The freeze is scheduled to end in March. Obama has called for workers’ pay to increase by 0.5 percent at that time and by 1 percent starting in 2014.
“Despite what supporters of this proposal may say about respecting the work of federal employees,” said a statement from Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, “blocking a modest pay raise of 0.5 percent for dedicated public servants who are working under a 27-month pay freeze sends quite the opposite message — that neither they nor their work are viewed as important to our nation.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.