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Sequestration’s impact comes into focus

Feb. 4, 2013 - 07:48AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY and SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
An Army civilian employee, left, speaks with an Army officer before undergoing training at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in August 2008. The Defense Department and its agencies face an almost 8 percent budget cut if sequestration begins March 1, according to a recent analysis by Senate Budget Committee Republicans. Those cuts will likely mean furloughs for almost the entire DoD civilian workforce for as many as 22 days - one day per week beginning April 16 through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013.
An Army civilian employee, left, speaks with an Army officer before undergoing training at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in August 2008. The Defense Department and its agencies face an almost 8 percent budget cut if sequestration begins March 1, according to a recent analysis by Senate Budget Committee Republicans. Those cuts will likely mean furloughs for almost the entire DoD civilian workforce for as many as 22 days - one day per week beginning April 16 through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013. (File photo / Army)

As a gridlocked Congress last week appeared increasingly resigned to the steep budget cuts known as sequestration taking effect, the practical effects of what that would mean for federal employees have started to take shape.

The Defense Department and its agencies face an almost 8 percent budget cut if sequestration begins March 1, according to a recent analysis by Senate Budget Committee Republicans. Those cuts will likely mean furloughs for almost the entire DoD civilian workforce for as many as 22 days — one day per week beginning April 16 through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013. Also, Defense components already froze hiring in January and are preparing to lay off many of their 46,000 temporary and term employees and take other belt-tightening steps.

In contrast, non-Defense agencies so far have released next to nothing about their sequestration plans, and federal employee groups are expressing irritation at the lack of information. But they expect other agencies will take steps similar to Defense.

If the current mood on Capitol Hill is any indication, agencies may have to finalize those plans within weeks.

“I think the sequester is going to happen because that $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, we can’t lose those spending cuts,” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on NBC on Jan. 27.

The Washington Post reported Jan. 29 that Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the odds of sequestration taking effect are “probably even” and that there is a real chance it could take effect March 1.

And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Politico on Jan. 23, “I’m pretty sure it [sequestration] is going to happen now.”

Sequestration “may well happen,” said Gordon Adams, who served as a top Office of Management and Budget staffer during the Clinton administration and now teaches at American University. Rather than seek to head it off March 1, lawmakers could instead try to work out a broader deal in setting agencies’ budgets for the rest of fiscal 2013 after a current continuing resolution expires March 27.

If sequestration does take effect, the impact on agencies will hinge on how OMB decides to “apportion” their shares of the budget after March 1, he added. The budget office could temporarily keep funding at current levels in hopes that lawmakers would reach an agreement by the end of March. If OMB instead opted to reduce funding immediately, furloughs and contracting would probably follow, Adams said.

Should sequestration occur, Paul Posner, a former senior official at the Government Accountability Office, questioned whether lawmakers would have the will to keep it in place for long.

“There’s a lot of precedent here to say that, generally speaking, we don’t want to let government services get interrupted,” said Posner, now at George Mason University. “The full sequester is only one of 20 potential scenarios.”

Federal unions and other employee groups, such as the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, are growing more worried and urging lawmakers to come up with some way to avoid the $85 billion in cuts now looming.

“The iceberg is in sight, and the Titanic chooses to ignore it,” said FLEOA National President Jon Adler. “I don’t think even the lifeboats are ready.”

Adler said that if mass furloughs take effect, law enforcement agencies such as the Justice Department may have to rotate officers around to try to make sure the highest-priority cases and assignments — such as counterterrorism or national security-focused cases — are not compromised. But Adler said he’s not sure there is a way to avoid hurting those sensitive missions.

“Unfortunately, the criminal element is not going to experience a commensurate furlough situation,” Adler said. “It will put us at a perilous disadvantage, no matter how rotation works out.”

William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said non-Defense agencies told his union they have no plans yet to share. Dougan said that represents a breakdown in the labor-management relationship and reflects the government’s troubling reluctance to engage unions before decisions are made.

But the sequestration plans already outlined by Defense have Dougan worried.

Ripple effect

Cutting term employees — who are hired to perform temporary work under appointments that last from one to four years — will hit facilities such as the Red River Army Depot in Texas particularly hard. About 1,500 of Red River’s 3,500 civilian employees are term employees, Dougan said, and they maintain Army vehicles such as Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other wheeled and track personnel carriers.

“As those things come back [from combat zones], they [Red River’s term employees] go through and strip them down, put them back together, replace parts and ship them back out so they can be used again,” Dougan said. “Losing that work force is a concern, because that reduces the ability of the facility to maintain a high number and type of vehicles.”

And the economic effect of massive furloughs and layoffs will ripple out beyond military bases and federal facilities, Dougan said. Many military bases, such as Red River, are located in or near small communities. As federal employees are furloughed or laid off, Dougan said, that could harm the local economies where they are located.

The Defense Finance and Accounting Service last week froze hiring, halted performance award nominations and slashed travel, training and overtime in an effort to avoid furloughs. But DFAS Director Terri McKay said in a Jan. 17 email that more stringent actions — such as furloughs — may be necessary if sequestration takes effect or the current continuing resolution expires without another agreement in place to further fund Defense.

By Feb. 1, all Defense organizations were supposed to turn in draft plans outlining how many employees they expected to furlough and for how long, as well as how many temporary workers would be laid off and how long civilian hiring freezes would last. The plans will not be made public, a DoD spokeswoman said last week.

‘Uncertainty and distraction‘

Already, however, the uncertainty is taking a toll.

“We’re spending way too much time, already, preparing for sequester and potentially furloughing ourselves and our colleagues,” Mike McCord, principal deputy undersecretary in the Pentagon’s comptroller’s office, said last week. The result is “uncertainty and distraction” not just for DoD employees, but also for contractors, he added.

Officials at non-Defense agencies refer questions about sequestration to OMB, which has said nothing about specific cost-cutting preparations.

“It’s maddening,” said John O’Grady, president of an American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Environmental Protection Agency employees in the Chicago area. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”

EPA has already taken some cost-stepping steps, such as offering $25,000 buyout and early retirement packages late last year to up to 117 employees in its Washington headquarters and in its Region 9 offices on the West Coast.

But even though OMB has told agencies to involve unions “to the fullest extent practicable,” EPA has declined to say what might be in store for its 18,000-strong workforce if sequestration hits, O’Grady said.

In a lengthy “request for information” sent in December, O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if sequestration hits. The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees.

Last month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad [and] unduly burdensome, and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.

An EPA spokeswoman referred questions from Federal Times to OMB, where a spokeswoman did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

At the National Park Service, sequestration planning is just getting under way, according to a Jan. 25 memo from Director Jonathan Jarvis. In the memo, Jarvis ordered an immediate hiring freeze and told NPS regional directors to assume a 5 percent cut from their current funding levels. Jarvis also told them to consider furloughs and eliminating travel, non-mandatory training and other “less-essential costs.”

If sequestration does occur, Jarvis wrote, the effects could include some park area closings, shorter seasons and cuts to operating hours. The memo was obtained and posted online by The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Federal contractors such as San Diego’s Sentek Global also are feeling the pinch of looming budget cuts.

Most of Sentek Global’s federal business is with the Navy and involves cybersecurity and command-and-control systems. President and CEO Eric Basu said the company was told Jan. 29 to immediately stop work under a research contract with the Navy due to funding uncertainties. It is unclear when — or if — that work will resume.

“We’re hoping it’s temporary, but we’re trying to get an answer,” Basu said. “When programs go unfunded, we have to lay people off, too. We don’t have any layoffs planned, [but] if the government cuts our budget, we’re going to have to lay people off.”

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Nicole Blake Johnson contributed to this report.

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