On the day President Obama delivers his annual address to Congress, the state of the federal workforce is precarious.
It is precarious because employees are worried about their paychecks when Uncle Sam is in danger of not fully making his payroll.
They are worried that budget cuts could diminish their ability to serve citizens and fulfill agency missions.
They are worried about being disregarded and disrespected.
The latest source of worry came Friday when the White House again warned that across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester would cause “hundreds of thousands” of furloughs. That repeated a similar warning in a Jan. 14 memo from Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Yet, with the Pentagon saying that 800,000 employees in the Defense Department alone could be furloughed, expect the government-wide total to well exceed 1 million.
On March 1, federal agencies will begin implementing cuts over seven months amounting to 13 percent of the Defense budget and 9 percent of other programs, unless Congress stops the automatic reductions.
“[I]f we go past this date, there’s certainly — there’s no way to implement the sequester without significant furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal employees,” Danny Werfel, OMB’s controller, told a news briefing Friday.
Furloughs are unpaid leave days. The number of days could vary among agencies. Whatever the number, it means less pay for federal workers who already have had their basic pay rates frozen for more than two years.
News like this leaves federal employees feeling “undervalued and unappreciated,” said William A. Brown, president of the African American Federal Executive Association. He’d like Obama to discuss “the value of federal employees” in his State of the Union address.
Obama has proposed a 1 percent raise for 2014. A 0.5 percent increase is scheduled to take effect at the end of March. The House, however, plans to vote this week on Republican-sponsored legislation that would extend the pay freeze through the end of this year.
The sequester requires the government to cut spending by $85 billion by the end of the fiscal year in September.
“These are large and arbitrary cuts, and will have severe impacts across government,” Werfel said. “Across the government we’ll see assistance programs slashed; we’ll see contracts cut; we’ll see employees out of work. And we’ll have no choice. The blunt, irresponsible and severe nature of sequestration means that we can’t plan our way out of these consequences or take steps to soften the blow.”
Even essential federal employees would be hit.
The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, would not be able to move funding from custodial work to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers. “It’s not possible to do that because the law is written with such stricture that the cuts have to be taken at such a granular level,” Werfel explained.
Exactly how the cuts play out could differ among agencies.
“In some cases, you’ll see immediate impacts,” Werfel said. “And in some cases, agencies will work out those changes to their programs and their structures over time. So there’s no easy answer to say what the world is going to look like on March 2. We just know that these impacts — while not all of them immediate — if we don’t take action, they will take place.”
Among civilian employees, only those at the Department of Veterans Affairs would be exempt from a furlough. Law enforcement personnel would take a hit like everyone else. A White House fact sheet said “the FBI and other law enforcement entities would see a reduction in capacity equivalent to more than 1,000 Federal agents.”
While federal workers would be directly hit, others who rely on federal grants also would feel the pain of sequestration.
“The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be forced to delay or halt vital scientific projects” by cutting research grants, according to the fact sheet. “Since each research award supports up to seven research positions, several thousand personnel could lose their jobs.” Nearly 1,000 fewer National Science Foundation research grants and awards would lead to 12,000 scientists and students curtailing scientific research, the White House estimated.
In the hopes of reducing the impact of a sequester on federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) on Monday released a paper on savings that could be found by reducing government service contracts.
The author, Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore Law School professor, argues that from 70 percent to 90 percent of the sequester savings realized from cutting federal employees instead could come from reductions in service contract spending. He was paid by AFGE, which said the paper’s conclusions were Tiefer’s alone.
“This brief memorandum is intended to demystify the procurement process,” Tiefer wrote, “so that managers can look to their service contractors for savings as surely as they are already looking at their federal employees for savings.”
Getting up to 90 percent of needed savings from contractors would “cripple the government and devastate the economy,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors.
“[I]t is no wiser to take savings exclusively from the federal workforce,” he added, “than it is to take the savings exclusively from contractors.”
In the long run — short term, too — the nation “will not be well served if we continue to look to the workforce for savings,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. She is the one who declared the state of the workforce “precarious.”
“Elected officials and political appointees come and go,” she added. “But we expect — and rely on — the career federal workforce with its experience, skills and institutional memory to keep government functioning well every day.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.