Now what?

Congress has failed the country — again.

Unable to avoid $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, the process of slicing agency spending starts Friday.

What does that mean for federal employees? What options do they have?

Agencies will begin informing staff members of furloughs that could last up to 22 days through September, when the fiscal year ends. In a few cases, agencies might be able to shave enough off of their budgets to avoid making employees take unpaid leave days.

How sequestration will impact federal departments

But more than a million federal employees won’t be so fortunate. Many likely will get furlough notices sometime in March, 30 days before the first furlough.

That lag means there is still hope that Congress will do its job and reach an agreement that will allow federal workers to do theirs without anyone losing pay and without Americans losing services and any more faith in their leaders.

Unionized federal employees hope labor leaders can limit the pain of sequestration as much as possible through talks with agency managers before furloughs begin. Those talks are required for workers in bargaining units. Employees not covered by a collective-bargaining agreement don’t have that protection.

Just so there’s no mistake, the Office of Management and Budget reminded agencies this week of the need to include unions in the planning process.

Agencies “must allow employees’ exclusive representatives to have pre-decisional involvement in these matters,” Danny Werfel, OMB’s controller, said in a memo Wednesday to agency heads.

Managers “have a duty to notify their exclusive representatives and, upon request, bargain over any negotiable impact and implementation proposals the union may submit, unless the matter of furloughs is already covered by a collective bargaining agreement,” he added.

Already, there is one charge by a union official that these talks are not going as envisioned.

Gabrielle Martin, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 216, which represents Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staffers, said the agency has refused to engage in talks about furlough plans that the EEOC intends to issue next week.

No so, according to Claudia Withers, EEOC’s chief operating officer. She said agency officials briefed the union Monday “and consider this to be just the beginning of an important conversation about what the agency will do to respond to sequestration.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said her organization has had off-the-record talks with agencies and expects formal bargaining to start in a week or two, once agencies issue furlough notices.

At the top of her list are negotiations to determine when employees can take days off.

“We want employees to have choices in that,” she said.

Kelley mentioned a mother who pays for child care by the week. If she is forced to take off one day a week, she would have to pay for a day of child care she doesn’t use. The mother’s preference would be to take five days consecutively, which would allow her to save a week’s worth of child-care payments.

Such savings would be particularly important because a one-day-a-week furlough for the rest of the fiscal year amounts to a 10 percent pay cut.

Although agencies must allow unions to bargain over the implementation of furloughs, management does not have to follow labor’s recommendations. And employees not in a union will have no one to even plead their case.

“They don’t have that kind of involvement that’s spelled out for the unions,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association (SEA).

Like their unionized colleagues, however, employees not in a bargaining unit can appeal furloughs to the Merit Systems Protection Board. But Bill Bransford, SEA’s general counsel, said “it would be unusual” for an appeal of uniform furloughs to be successful.

Werfel also told agency managers that they should give “heightened scrutiny” to the hiring of employees, monetary awards to staffers and spending on training, travel and conferences. OMB didn’t prohibit these activities, but Werfel’s directive said they should be “conducted only to the extent they are the most cost-effective way to maintain critical agency mission operations under sequestration.”

Union negotiations can lessen the pain of a furlough, but employees should not expect it to go away. “What is not on the table,” said David Borer, AFGE ’s general counsel, “is negotiating the furlough away.”

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