On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are casting blame on each other for allowing the cuts to happen as the partisan conflict over taxes and spending continues. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Federal government labor unions and agency managers are bargaining over how and when to carry out first-of-their-kind furloughs of more than a million employees as deep spending cuts are all but certain to kick in Friday.

Union leaders cannot stop the furloughs or determine who in each agency must take them. They say their best option is to soften the pain of unpaid days, which could slash federal pay by up to 20 percent this fiscal year. They are demanding that employees be able to choose when to take days off and volunteer for more to help financially strapped colleagues. They want guarantees that no one will be penalized when work does not get done and assurances that managers cannot choose favorites to spare.

“Many of you will be missing eight, 10, 20 days of work,” Alex Bastani, president of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told a standing-room-only crowd of 400 Labor Department employees Thursday at a lunchtime town hall on sequestration.

“Congress wants the furlough,” Bastani said. “There are some people saying it’s not going to happen. I don’t think they’re in contact with reality.”

This would be the first time that furloughs across the federal government would occur with no chance that lost pay would be recovered. The new terrain is setting off anxiety for employees and confusion for personnel managers as agencies from the Defense Department to the Federal Aviation Administration announce unpaid days.

You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters. (The Washington Post)

“We’ve never been through a sequester before,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 130,000 workers from the Internal Revenue Service to the Agriculture Department. “There aren’t any rules.”

Unions and management at the Labor Department will sit down Monday to begin five days of bargaining with three unions over furloughs scheduled to start April 1.

“The goal here is to be fair across the board,” department spokesman Stephen Barr said, “to deliver the mission and not let it get harmed.”

But as they prepare to sit at bargaining tables across the government, both sides are finding that little is straightforward — agencies are planning $85 billion in cuts without knowing from one day to the next whether Congress might somehow reach agreement to stop them.

This may be new terrain, but there are rules the government must follow when it comes to furloughs. Personnel managers have been poring over civil service laws for weeks.

No one will be sent home without pay Friday. The soonest furloughs would start is April 1. Employees must be given a notice at least 30 days in advance, and they have seven days to contest it. Most agencies plan to spread out unpaid days to minimize the effect on services and workers.

While the number of days is likely to differ in each section of an agency, all employees in the unit will be hit equally. Agencies have capped furloughs at 22 days. If unpaid leave exceeded that, it would become a layoff.

Furloughs will mean forfeited vacation and sick time, but how much time depends on the number of forced days off. It is unclear whether hardship cases will be considered. As Bastani told Labor Department employees, federal workers should be careful about three-day holiday weekends. Adding a fourth as a furlough day means they will not get holiday pay. Short-term unemployment benefits are an option, he said, but not in Virginia. Contractors working on ongoing projects will not be furloughed.

Lost income will also result in smaller retirement accounts.

And everyone from secretaries to senior executives would be hit, except for about 2,000 senior, presidentially appointed officials in the government, civilian employees in combat zones, foreign employees of the Defense Department, Veterans Affairs employees and some workers involved in sensitive security issues. Also, most social-safety net programs are exempt.

The cuts may not last for long if Congress reaches a spending agreement by the next fiscal deadline on March 27, when the stopgap budget funding government operations runs out. But what many civil servants and political appointees thought was unimaginable now seems inevitable.

“The imminence of it is what’s scaring me,” Louise Leonard Campbell, an economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said Thursday as she left the meeting. “I’m a single mom. My son has health issues. This is just snowballing.”

As they listened to Bastani on the stage of the auditorium of the Frances Perkins Building, employees were conscious of the irony that they are facing some of the same labor conditions they work to improve for the rest of the nation’s workforce.

“We are just living from one paycheck to another, and this could be really bad for us,” said Jorge Figueroa of Silver Spring, who works in quality control for the unemployment insurance division. He has four children, two in college. “I am telling you, this is going to be very stressful.”

If he is furloughed, he said, he will apply for short-term benefits from his own office.

The Pentagon warned 800,000 civilian employees worldwide this week to prepare for unpaid leave one day a week for 22 weeks starting in late April. Customs and Border Protection employees face 14 days; Bureau of Prisons workers 12 days; U.S. marshals 13 days; and the FBI, including agents and intelligence analysts, up to 14 days. Salary-heavy agencies that cannot delay projects or grants are most likely to furlough.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood painted a nightmarish picture of air travel if the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees are furloughed. He emphasized the potential for flight delays, cancellations and angry travelers.

Aviation is one of the critical government functions the Obama administration and unions have warned will be disrupted if so many employees are out of work over a prolonged period.

Labor leaders are continuing to warn members of Congress that furloughs will hit not only workers but also vital public services. They have demanded that contractors be spared before federal workers.

“Like everybody else, we’ve been lobbying everybody who will listen to come to some sort of resolution,” said David Borer, general counsel for the AFGE, the largest federal union, with 650,000 members across 78 agencies. “Failing that, they’re going to have to negotiate with us.”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are casting blame on each other for allowing the cuts to happen as the partisan conflict over taxes and spending continues.

“No one is taking the possibility of furloughs as seriously as they should,” said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), whose Northern Virginia district has 60,000 federal workers. “They think we’re going to act like grown-ups and solve this. They’re giving us too much credit.”

He said he is doubtful that Congress will agree to stop the sequester quickly in favor of other spending cuts that could eliminate the need for furloughs. “That would mean someone would have to own the cuts, and no one wants to,” Moran said.

Republican leaders say it is President Obama who is letting the sequester happen by refusing to reduce spending in a government he has acknowledged could be leaner. “I don’t think there’s a person in America who thinks the size of Washington is too small,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “The president is choosing to cut critical things . . . but the White House is not banging down our doors demanding that we pass a bill to give agencies flexibility to avoid the sequester.”

The White House, which has surrounded Obama all week with federal workers who provide services the cuts would threaten, sought again Friday to blame Republicans for not stopping them. “The line they keep drawing in the sand is, ‘I don’t care what the public says. I don’t care who is hurt by it,’ ” press secretary Jay Carney said. “. . . The Republican position is cuts only, a burden borne only by senior citizens, children [and people with] disabilities.”

These would be the first widespread furloughs for the purpose of saving money. Non-essential employees were furloughed for a total of 28 days during government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 after Congress and the Clinton administration failed to pass a budget. And a dispute over FAA funding left 74,000 employees out of work for 12 days in 2011. But in each case employees were reimbursed for lost pay.

“We very much regret that furloughs will be enacted,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “We’re concerned about the degradation of the mission and the direct effects on our civilian colleagues and their families.” The Pentagon is making arrangements to offer employees financial and stress counseling.

Senior executives find themselves in the odd role of planning furloughs that will affect not just those they supervise but also themselves. Said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, “So many of them are concerned that they may be wrongly viewed as receiving special treatment.”

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