Employees are desperate for information on how furloughs will affect them. Here is what Federal Times has learned about how they will work, based on interviews with government officials and the Office of Personnel Management's furlough guidance.
Q. How long will I be furloughed?
A. That depends on your agency, and on how much flexibility it has they have to absorb the sequestration cuts. The Defense Department, for example, expects to furlough nearly its entire civilian workforce employees for 22 days. Customs and Border Protection, on the other hand, will would furlough employees only for up to 14 days if sequestration goes into effect. And the IRS told the National Treasury Employees Union that it may have to furlough employees for five to seven days.
Q. When will my furlough begin?
A. Probably in mid- to late April. Defense plans to notify employees in mid-March that they will likely be furloughed, which then starts a 30-day notification clock before they can be officially furloughed. CBP will also plans to notify its furloughed employees in mid-March. But the IRS told NTEU that its employees will likely be furloughed this summer.
Q. Can I take my furlough all at once? Or will it be spread out?
A. That remains to be seen. While Defense has discussed furloughing employees one day per week for the rest of the fiscal year, federal unions are negotiating over how furloughs will be conducted. Some are pushing agencies to allow employees to choose whether to take their furloughs all at once or to spread out their furlough days.
Q. Can I volunteer to do my work without being paid while on furlough?
A. No. Agencies are legally barred from accepting nonpaid volunteer work from their its employees.
Q. What happens if I'm scheduled for training during a furlough?
A. The Office of Personnel Management advises agencies to schedule employees' furlough days around their scheduled training. If there is no way to avoid furloughing someone on a training day, then that employee is not allowed to attend his training session.
Q. Can I take another job while I'm furloughed?
A. Maybe, as long as you do not violate the government's ethics rules, which continue to apply even when you're furloughed. OPM advises employees who are considering taking a second job to check with their agency's ethics official to make sure they don't break those rules.
Q. What happens to my within-grade step increase? Will it be delayed because of my furlough?
A. Perhaps. Agencies are not allowed to delay or deny step increases because of a lack of money. But if you are a General Schedule employee who is in step 1, 2 or 3 of your grade and are furloughed for more than two workweeks, your step increase will be delayed by at least a full pay period.
Q. Can I take annual, sick or other paid leave or compensatory time off instead of a furlough day?
A. No. You may not substitute paid leave or other paid time off for a furlough period.
Q. What about leave without pay under the Family and Medical Leave Act? Can I use that as my furlough period?
A. Yes. If you want to take unpaid leave under FMLA — for example, if you are a new parent — you may count that time towards your furlough requirement. Other forms of leave without pay can also can count towards your furlough.
Q. What happens to my health benefits?
A. Your Federal Employee Health Benefits Program coverage will continue, as long as you still earn enough salary to cover your share of the premiums. If you don't earn enough salary to cover your health care premiums but want to keep your coverage, you can have your agency cover your share while you are furloughed and, once your furlough ends, have the repayments deducted from your resumed salary. Dental and vision coverage will also continue in a similar way.
Q. Can I get unemployment benefits?
A. It depends on the rules governing unemployment compensation in the state where you work. The Labor Department's website has links to state-by-state unemployment compensation policies.
Q. Is being furloughed considered a break in service?
A. No., you are in a nonpay, nonduty status, but you are still a federal employee.
Q. What if I work on an alternative work schedule, such as a 5-4-9 schedule? How will my furlough be scheduled?
A. Agencies will decide on their own how to schedule furloughs, and OPM said policies should be consistent and equitable. Agencies have the option of setting furlough requirements by the hour instead of by the day. For example, instead of requiring employees to take 22 furlough days, Defense could require employees to be furloughed for 176 hours total. For an employee who works nine-9 hour days and takes one day off per pay period — the so-called 5-4-9 schedule — that could mean 19 complete furlough days, plus a partial day in which he is furloughed five hours.
Q. What happens if I'm on travel while I'm furloughed? Will I still get my food and lodging per diem, or will I have to come home?
A. If an employee on travel is forced to take a furlough day, his agency Agencies must provide per diem and or other expense payments to that employees who are on travel while they have to take a furlough day.
Q. Will I still accrue annual and sick leave while on furlough?
A. At first, yes, your leave will accrue in a normal fashion. But if your total amount of furlough or other nonpay status hours for this year tops the number of hours you work during a biweekly pay period — in most cases, 80 hours — you will not get the annual and sick leave for the pay period in which you reached the 80-hour threshold. The process repeats the next time you reach 80 hours of nonpay status.
Q. How will a furlough affect my Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System benefits? How about my Thrift Savings Plan?
A. Your CSRS or FERS benefits will probably not be affected. The government uses your rate of basic pay — not your actual pay — to determine your high-three3 salary average, which is used to calculate your retirement annuity.
For example, if your rate of basic pay in 2013 would have been $85,000, but furloughs cost you $5,000, OPM would still calculate your high-three3 as if you had earned $85,000 this year. Basic pay for retirement includes locality pay.
Your amount of creditable service used to calculate your CSRS or FERS pension will would not be affected unless you are in a nonpay status for six months or more in any calendar year. Since the government does not plan to furlough employees for more than 22 days, you probably will not lose any of your creditable service time.
Your TSP contributions — and, if you are a FERS employee, your agency's matching contributions and additional 1 percent contribution — will be reduced, because those percentage contributions are based on your actual pay earned in a pay period.
Source: Federal Times research