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Furloughs proposed for National Weather Service, NOAA

Facing financial woes, exacerbated by the prospects of the budget sequester, NOAA announced today that it proposes 4 furlough days for workers across the agency, including the National Weather Service.

“…we are entering into national consultations with the labor unions that represent some of the NOAA workforce regarding implementation of up to four days of furlough for each NOAA employee before September 30, 2013” said Kathryn Sullivan, acting NOAA administrator, in an email to staff.

The consultation process will give labor unions the opportunity to provide alternatives to the possible furloughs. NOAA will take these alternatives into consideration before formalizing a furlough plan according to Ciaran Clayton, an agency spokesperson.

Richard Hirn, general counsel for the National Weather Service’s labor union, the National Weather Service Employees Organization, immediately criticized the furlough plan.

“NOAA’s plans to furlough operational employees at the National Weather Service as we enter the severe storm and hurricane season is unnecessary and places the public at great risk,” Hirn said.

Sullivan assured staff that steps would be taken to ensure mission-critical activities conducted by NOAA would not be interrupted.

“For NOAA employees who are engaged in 24/7 operations such as those who work in our Weather Forecast Offices, those working on shipboard platforms that are not at home port, law enforcement officers, and satellite operators, days will be carefully determined to ensure continuity of mission,” Sullivan said.

The furlough proposal comes at a time when NOAA and, particularly, the National Weather Service have experienced budget troubles, even prior to prospect of the sequestration cuts which would axe 8.2 percent from operating budgets.  Last year, the National Weather Service was embroiled in a “reprogramming” scandal in which millions of dollars were moved between accounts without Congressional approval to avoid forecaster furloughs and layoffs.

The National Weather Service has responded to the budget problems in recent weeks by freezing hiring and cutting back on staff travel and training. These cuts reduced spending by more than $22 million. It has also reduced spending on contracts and grants by $14 million according to a NOAA statement.

“While the hiring freeze, which went into effect March 27, was needed, it has become clear that with the implementation of the sequester cuts, it’s not enough to address our overall fiscal constraints,” Sullivan said in the email justifying the furlough plan.

Congressman Frank Wolf, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, NOAA’s parent agency, said he has repeatedly stated he would work with NOAA to avoid National Weather Service furloughs.

In a letter he sent on March 5 to Rebecca Blank, Acting Commerce Department secretary, he said his committee “would be willing to consider a reprogamming [of funds] on an expedited basis” to prevent negative impacts on forecasting.

“I’ve made it clear that we’re prepared to reprogram and find budget solutions,” Wolf said in an interview. “We’ll work with the [Commerce] department to eliminate any furloughs.”

Of the furlough decision, Wolf pointed to leadership vacancies at the top of the Department of Commerce and NOAA.  Both the secretary of the Department of Commerce and NOAA Administrator slots are filled by acting officials.

“There’s no one home there,” Wolf said. “That’s what creating such a problem. If everyone is acting, it’s difficult for career people to move on these things.”

Wolf sent a letter to Blank last Friday urging her to “prompt the White House to expeditiously appoint persons to these important positions.”

Clayton said that NOAA will seek reprogramming approval from Congress to help cover labor costs at the National Weather Service, but – even so – furloughs are necessary. Without the spending cuts and reprogramming of funds, 10 furlough days would be required for National Weather Service employees.

“There are no easy or painless options,” Clayton said. “This plan represents NOAA’s best effort to ensure that critical public services are protected and employee impacts are minimized within the financial resources we’ve been given.”

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, rejected NOAA’s furlough rationale.

“In spite of Congress’ offer to reprogram the money to prevent a furlough and to fill the vacant positions, NOAA now plans to furlough,” Sobien said. “What NOAA does not understand is they cannot furlough the weather.”