The Washington Post

Weather Service says furloughs possible if no deal struck

The National Weather Service notified lawmakers Thursday that it plans to furlough up to 5,000 employees for 13 days between July and September if Congress and the agency cannot find $36 million to cover its budget deficit.

Weather Service officials acknowledged to legislators, as well as the union, that requiring employees to take unpaid leave could disrupt critical weather operations at the peak of the hurricane season.

But with labor costs of $2 million a day, the Weather Service cannot pay its employees through the end of the fiscal year in September without a solution to a problem of its own making. An internal investigation concluded that for years, the agency reallocated millions of dollars that Congress approved for other projects to pay employees.

The investigation, disclosed last month, prompted the retirement of the Weather Service’s director, John L. “Jack” Hayes, after the replacement of its chief financial officer.

Weather Service officials have stopped the practice of reallocating funds once the investigation was underway.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which directs the service, have declined to say publicly why the practice went on and who authorized it. They have asked Congress to cover the gap through the fiscal year.

But lawmakers who oversee the Weather Service’s budget have said they will not consider the request until they know more about what happened.

The House Appropriations panel that oversees NOAA and the Weather Service scheduled a June 21 hearing.

“If faced with this difficult situation, [the Weather Service] would work to prioritize resources and staff for mission-critical operations,” agency officials wrote to the National Weather Service Employees Organization about possible furloughs. “Weather operations would likely be affected.”

Furloughs “would also reduce staff or potentially close weather forecast offices and river forecast centers during the time of year when there are significant hurricanes, flash floods, extreme heat and forest fires,” officials wrote.

Union President Dan Sobien called the furlough notice a negotiating tactic by NOAA to prod action from Congress and the Commerce Department, which began talks last week to find a solution.

He said the effects of furloughs would be crippling, from emptying forecasting offices to cutting vital meteorological guidance to air traffic controllers at airports.

“You can’t stop hurricanes or tornadoes because we’re furloughed,” he said.

The union has 15 days to respond to the announcement. While it cannot stop the Weather Service from mandating unpaid time off, it can negotiate the terms.

NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said the agency “is committed to doing everything within its authority to avoid furloughs.”

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, said Thursday that she opposes furloughs. “I am on the side of the men and women of the Weather Service and the American people who depend on their forecasts and warnings,” she said. She said she is working with her Republican colleagues “to get all the facts so we can agree to a new plan to prevent furloughs in the short term.”

Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight, said his staff has repeatedly asked NOAA to see a copy of the investigation. NOAA officials said it had been delivered Wednesday.

“Either NOAA turned a blind eye to this deficit, or they were asleep at the wheel,” Broun said in a statement.

The Weather Service staffs 122 forecast offices throughout the country — including Guam and Puerto Rico — and key centers such as the National Hurricane Center in Miami and the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The offices issue watches and warnings for violent weather including severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash flooding and hurricanes.

Employees say they fear that furloughs coinciding with severe thunderstorm and hurricane seasons could compromise the quality and timeliness of information provided about these hazards.

NOAA officials have said there is no evidence of fraud or personal gain from the misdirected money. But the investigation, prompted by anonymous complaints in 2010 and 2011, concluded that senior Weather Service staff members operated “outside the bounds of acceptable financial management.”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.