A newly introduced Senate bill would exempt from sequestration-triggered furloughs federal employees whose jobs are deemed essential to public safety.

Capitol Fall

The bill, introduced Monday by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and backed by nine other Republican senators, mirrors a plan offered but not brought to a vote last month as an amendment to a measure funding the government through September.

“This bill will help ensure the Obama Administration spends taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars in a way that prioritizes our nation’s economy, protects private sector jobs, and defends our national security,” Blunt said in a statement.

Some federal employees are exempt from unpaid furlough days because of the self-funding nature of their agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, while the Veterans Administration is excluded under a separate law. Also, some agencies have said that they won’t need furloughs because they achieved enough savings in other ways, such as through hiring freezes and cutting contract spending.

However, where furloughs hit, relatively few exceptions are projected. For example, the military services have said that certain jobs involving health and safety can be excluded, but only on a limited basis. The Navy has estimated that 94 percent of its civilian workforce will be subject to furloughs.

Under the bill, agencies would exempt “essential” employees, who it defines as those in positions “involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, as determined by the head of the agency.” Agencies could transfer certain funds internally to cover the costs.

That language reflects an Obama administration policy of early 2011, when the government was facing a partial shutdown due to a pending lapse in agency spending authority. At the time, administration officials said that all but about 800,000 of the roughly 2.1 million non-postal federal employees would be exempt from furloughs, under that standard.

In a partial shutdown-type furlough, employees with that status would remain on the job, although unpaid, at least for the meantime.

While limited furloughs have started, the major impact is due to start in the weeks and months ahead. The numbers of days and of affected employees, and the starting dates, have been in flux as agencies continue to look for savings and reexamine their budgets in light of the continuing funding law.