The Washington Post

Threat of sequester furloughs diminishing or gone for some agencies

The threat of furloughs has disappeared or diminished for several agencies since the government-wide spending cuts kicked in last month.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it wouldn’t place employees on unpaid leave, and two senators proposed bipartisan legislation to stop the controversial air-traffic controller furloughs that started Monday.

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Wednesday’s news came just three days after the first furlough days began for some departments. Federal rules require 30 days of notice before furloughs take effect, and the grace period expired Sunday for some employees.

Congress and agency planners have worked to avoid furloughs for certain agencies by shifting funds between accounts, overcoming the rigid structure of the sequester that calls for indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.

The stopgap budget that Congress approved last month to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year provided certain agencies with additional funding or budgeting flexibility to help them avoid some of the worst impacts of the sequester.

The Agriculture Department benefited from that legislation, as it allowed the agency to avoid furloughing meat inspectors. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had insisted that the sequester would force him to shut down all U.S. meat production for at least 11 days while the agency placed inspectors on unpaid leave, but now that threat is gone for the year.

More good news could be on the way. The Pentagon said two weeks ago that it would try to sharply curtail or altogether eliminate furloughs for its civilian employees. Defense officials are trying to determine how much the stopgap budget will change their sequester plans; the agency already has reduced the number of furlough days to 14 from 22.

Customs and Border Protection is in a similar situation. Congress’s short-term spending plan provided additional funds for the agency, but officials have not determined exactly how much that changes the furlough picture.

Not all agencies are avoiding unpaid leave. At least not yet.

Air-traffic controllers will remain in furlough mode unless Congress gives the FAA more budgeting flexibility. The same thing applies to all the remaining agencies that plan to place employees on unpaid leave under the sequester, including the EPA, the IRS, NOAA, the U.S. Park Police, Housing and Urban Development, the National Labor Relations Board and the White House budget office.


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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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