A White House official said “hundreds of thousands of federal employees” could be furloughed if the across-the-board budget cuts, called sequestration, take effect.

Federal agencies will begin implementing cuts amounting to 13 percent for defense programs and 9 percent for non-defense programs on March 1, unless Congress acts to prevent them.

“[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, federal controller for the Office of Management and Budget; told a press briefing  Friday.

Furloughs are unpaid leave days. The number of days could vary among agencies.

The sequester requires the government to cut spending by $85 billion over seven months. “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 maintenance or 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 said.

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 2nd.  We just know that these impacts — while not all of them immediate — if we don’t take action, they will take place.”

“We don’t see a way in which you can cut $85 billion over a seven-month period and not have significantly harmful impacts to our priorities, both domestic and defense,” he added.

Below is a segment of the briefing transcript that deals with furloughs:

Q: Have agencies started to issue letters to employees warning of furlough and the like?  Or when will that start happening?

WERFEL:  So what happened as recently as last week is agency heads sent notices out to their broad base of employees kind of updating them on where things are in terms of sequester planning, and did in that message — many of these agencies sent this type of message — indicated that, unfortunately, in order to meet these budget cuts, that furloughs in many cases are a likely outcome in order to do this.  Now, that was in a broad way.

Under the law, before an employee can be furloughed, they need a specific notice of their furlough with a specific amount of time.  In most cases, it’s 30 days, but it depends on a lot of different factors.  But as a general rule, a 30-day notice is typically what’s required.

I’m not aware of any specific notices that have been issued.  But if 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.

Q: Do you have any more specific number on that?  How many employees and contract employees would be facing this?

WERFEL:  At this point in time I don’t have a specific estimate.  I just know it’s high; it’s in the hundreds of thousands of employees, but I don’t have a specific estimate.


Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP