President Obama speaks Feb. 5 in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Obama urged the Congress to take action to avoid sequester cuts with a short-term budget fix. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
Federal agencies may start telling their employees as early as Tuesday about the cost-cutting steps — which could include furloughs — they are preparing to take if the steep budget cuts known as sequestration take effect.
Obama administration officials told federal union leaders on Monday that the Office of Management and Budget was issuing instructions to agencies on how to inform employees about their sequestration plans.
Those contingency plans could include personnel actions, such as furloughs, as well as reviews of contracts and grants for potential savings, said National Treasury Employees Union National President Colleen Kelley in a statement to Federal Times.
Federal Times obtained a draft memo from the Interior Department that said it will cut travel, training, facilities, supplies, and other operational and administrative costs to save money.
“We will use any and all flexibilities we have to protect our core operations and mission,” the draft memo said. “However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress.”
Kelley said agencies’ communications will not be official furlough notices. But the administration is reminding agencies that they must give employees appropriate notice before issuing furloughs or taking other personnel actions.
In the draft memo, Interior pledged to give at least 30 days’ notice before furloughing employees.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and OMB Controller Danny Werfel reportedly told union leaders that agencies are expected to discuss sequestration plans with their unions and include unions in their plans to communicate with employees.
But the American Federation of Government Employees blasted OMB for not ordering specific cuts to contract spending, such as freezing new service contracts, contract options, or approval of contract modifications.
“OMB has served up a buffet of cuts for agencies to make to the federal workforce,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said. “With respect to civilian workers, it seems that everything is on the table: Hiring freezes, furloughs, terminating temporary or term employees and encouraging our most seasoned workers to separate or retire. Yet OMB still hasn’t given agencies any useful or explicit guidance for reducing spending on service contracts.”
Sequestration, which is scheduled to take effect March 1, would likely result in massive furloughs throughout the government through the rest of fiscal 2013.
In its draft memo to employees, the Interior Department said: “Should these cuts occur, they would be harmful not only to our agency, but to critical domestic and defense priorities across the government and across the country. However, given that less than one month remains until these cuts would take effect and given that the delay enacted by Congress would give us less time in which to make the required cuts, our senior leadership team is engaged in extensive planning efforts to determine how we would deal with sequestration.”
Kelley said NTEU has asked its agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Customs and Border Protection, to start talking about what sequestration might mean, but does not yet have any details.
NTEU said that federal employees have already contributed $103 billion to pension reduction over a decade through the ongoing pay scale freeze and higher pension contributions, and hopes that agencies will first cut from government contracts and other areas before furloughing employees.
“Sequestration could have devastating financial consequences for the very people our country relies on,” Kelley said. Sequestration’s cuts “will result in serious harm to taxpayers who rely on the services provided by federal employees and agencies. The indiscriminate cuts will impact the ability of federal agencies to secure the borders, protect the food supply, test new drugs and medical devices, deliver school lunches, and collect the revenue needed to operate the government and address the deficit.”
President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to delay the sequester for a few months if lawmakers cannot agree on a way to permanently avert it. Obama said his proposed mix of increased tax revenues and spending cuts from last year is still on the table, and said a “balanced approach” is necessary to fix the deficit.
“If Congress cannot act immediately on a bigger package ... by the time the sequester is [scheduled to] take effect, I believe they should pass a smaller package of cuts and tax reforms to delay by a few more months the sequester,” Obama said.
“There is no reason” that Americans who work in fields such as national security or education should suffer because Washington cannot agree on the components of a sequester-avoidance bill, Obama said. “Congress is already working on a budget to avoid the sequester, and we should give them more time.”
But congressional Republicans quickly slammed Obama’s demand for further additional revenues.
And William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said federal employees’ patience is running thin with the looming threat of sequestration.
“Kicking the can down the road may be a good option for elected officials, but it does nothing to relieve the pressure on federal workers living in fear of a furlough notice landing on their desk,” Dougan said.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.