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Agencies have much flexibility in managing furloughs

Dec. 31, 2012 - 12:52PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
The Defense Department said in December that furlough notices would go out soon after Jan. 2 if sequestration takes effect, with furloughs following several months later.
The Defense Department said in December that furlough notices would go out soon after Jan. 2 if sequestration takes effect, with furloughs following several months later. (AFP via Getty Images)

Federal employees should report to work as normal Wednesday even if no deal is reached on heading off across-the-board budget cuts set to begin that same day, the Office of Personnel Management said in new guidance.

The cuts, formally known as sequestration, would carve anywhere from about 8 percent to 9 percent out of agencies’ budgets during the remainder of this fiscal year. But the impact would not be immediate, meaning that agencies “will not be executing” unpaid furloughs Jan. 2, according to the OPM guidance.

It will be up to each agency to decide how and when to tell employees whether they will be furloughed. In general, however, agencies must give at least 30 days’ notice for an administrative furlough scheduled to last up to 22 workdays, and at least 60 days’ notice for furloughs that would go beyond the 22-day benchmark. Agencies should also bargain with employee labor unions before implementing a furlough, OPM said.

The guidance, posted on OPM’s website late last week, comes as Congress is engaged in last-ditch talks to head off the so-called “fiscal cliff,” as a combination of looming spending cuts and tax increases is known. The tax increases, which would result from the expiration of tax cuts passed during former President George W. Bush’s administration, are scheduled to take effect Tuesday, followed by the spending cuts Wednesday. Economists predict that the double-whammy could throw the economy back into recession. Despite media reports of progress toward a compromise, congressional leaders had not announced an agreement as of noon Monday.

Agencies may need to furlough tens of thousands of employees if the budget cuts last through the end of the fiscal year in September. The Defense Department, the government’s largest civilian employer with some 800,000 workers, said earlier this month that furlough notices would go out soon after Jan. 2 if sequestration takes effect, with furloughs following several months later.

Agencies would also have considerable flexibility in implementing the unpaid time off, ranging from furloughing employees for one day per pay period to shutting down all operations for a fixed period of time. The U.S. Postal Service, with more than a half-million career employees, would not be affected because it receives no tax money for operating expenses.

During a furlough, agencies and individual workers would continue to be responsible for paying their respective share of the premiums for medical coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, according to OPM. Coverage under the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance program would continue for up to 12 months.

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