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Feds fear sequester’s impact

Mar. 4, 2013 - 07:44AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY and SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Marcherie Williams said possible furloughs could mean she'll have trouble supporting her 21-year-old son in college and may force her to take a part-time job. The IRS program analyst from Philadelphia spoke at a National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference last week.
Marcherie Williams said possible furloughs could mean she’ll have trouble supporting her 21-year-old son in college and may force her to take a part-time job. The IRS program analyst from Philadelphia spoke at a National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference last week. (Colin Kelly / Staff)

Kelly — a single mother of two — said hives broke out on her arm because she has been worrying so much about the furlough.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” said Kelly, an Air Force machinist who asked for her last name and base not to be printed. “It wouldn’t take a whole lot to make me cry.”

Because of the sequester that appeared all but certain last Friday, Kelly and almost 800,000 other Defense Department civilians are likely to be furloughed one day a week for the rest of the year beginning in late April. That amounts to a 20 percent pay cut.

At press time March 1, Washington appeared paralyzed. Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill blamed each other for the sequester, and the deadline to begin cutting $85 billion from the federal budget appeared inevitable.

For Kelly, that will mean losing $800 a month at a time when her family’s financial situation is already precarious. Her son is in college, and her daughter is about to graduate from high school. She worries that if the furlough continues for months, she won’t be able to afford college tuition for either of her children.

“When you’re on a single income, people have a tendency to forget how hard that is. My kids deserve better than that,” she said.

Kelly said she’s looking for a part-time job. That would take time away from her children, especially if it’s on the weekends, but Kelly fears she risks losing her house if she doesn’t fill the hole a furlough would leave in her bank account.

It isn’t just the sequester — and furloughs — that enrages her and countless other federal employees.

It is also the lack of information being given them.

“They do not tell us one thing,” Kelly said. “Not one single thing. We are completely on our own, looking on the Internet” for information about furloughs.

Many employees voiced their anger and despair in interviews with Federal Times and in comments on its website, expressing feelings of betrayal that political leaders failed to avert the sequester. Many also complained their agencies and managers have been mum until now about the possibility of furloughs and how they might be affected. In the absence of hard information, rumors are rampant.

“Everything we’ve been told is abstract,” said Sheila Darden, a computer assistant at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia. “Because nobody’s been told anything definite, nobody knows what to plan for.”

Some of that ambiguity was purposeful, according to Michael Astrue, who stepped down last month as commissioner of the Social Security Administration. He said the Obama administration stifled him when he tried to tell employees about how sequestration would hit them.

In an interview last week, Astrue said he wanted to discuss the implications of sequestration with employees but couldn’t get his proposed message past Office of Management and Budget reviewers, who wanted all agencies to stick to a standard template geared more to Congress than civil servants.

“At some point, I don’t think you’re helping the employees if they don’t feel like you’re telling them anything,” Astrue said.

And in instructions issued last July, OMB told agencies to continue normal spending and operations. Nonetheless, some agencies began pulling back at the start of the fiscal year in October. Since then, for example, the National Park Service has delayed filling “many vacant permanent jobs” and cut back on travel and other expenses, Director Jonathan Jarvis told employees last week.

The White House finally gave the go-ahead for general planning throughout the executive branch in mid-January. In more specific guidance issued Feb. 27 — two days before the sequester was to kick in — OMB Controller Danny Werfel ordered agencies “as soon as practicable” to identify the number of employees who would be furloughed, how long those furloughs would last and when notices would go out. Agencies should also spell out any major contracts they intended to cancel, scale back or delay, Werfel said.

Werfel also told agencies to halt cash bonuses if sequestration goes into effect, unless legally required.

One human resources director at an Army base, who asked that her name and base not be printed, said even she can’t get hard information, such as what will happen to employees at her base who have to take a furlough day while on travel. (By the way, employees on duty travel forced to take a furlough will still get reimbursed for their per diems.)

“There’s no firm word, just speculation and rumination on how to keep things going,” the HR director said. “It just sucks all around.”

The impact of furloughs

Meanwhile, distracted and depressed federal employees worry about the blow furloughs will deal to their families’ finances and the work of the government.

Nancy, a Navy housing assistant who also asked that her last name and base be withheld, said, “We’re trying to give all we’ve got for our customers, but it’s hard to look in the face of these young military families and keep a positive feeling going, when you’re feeling like you’re falling apart inside because you don’t know what’s going on in your own life.”

Some feds say the stress is taking a physical toll in some cases. Nancy said two co-workers have fallen ill in recent days and blame the impending furlough.

Nancy said she stopped contributing money to her Thrift Savings Plan last week to lessen the blow of a 20 percent pay cut. The board governing the TSP last week said it expects many furloughed feds will do the same.

“People are going to have to do what they can to stay afloat,” Nancy said. “If we get delinquent in any of our bills, or our mortgage, eventually our security clearance will be pulled, and there goes our job, too. It’s a domino effect.”

Nancy said her husband, who also works for the Navy, was planning to retire at the end of this year, after they paid off a car loan. But the 20 percent cut from both their salaries would upend those plans and force her husband to work for one more year — maybe even longer, she said.

“We were going to put our house on the market in January of next year,” Nancy said. “Now, none of that is going to happen. What it’s done to us is completely blow our plans that we’ve had for about three years right out of the water. After you give all these years, you expect a little better treatment than what they’re providing.”

Much uncertainty remains

Governmentwide, managers last week were uncertain how deeply to cut and where, according to memos sent to employees.

Assuming that sequestration means a 5 percent budget reduction, the Environmental Protection Agency could furlough its workforce for up to 13 days, acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in one such message. But to soften the impact, Perciasepe said, EPA may take a two-phase approach by requiring workers to take four unpaid days off by June 1 and then reviewing the budget situation to decide whether the remaining nine furlough days are needed. Under one scenario under discussion with employee unions, the entire agency could effectively shut down on three mandatory furlough days in May, July and August.

Among other possible cutbacks, the Department of Homeland Security is considering hiring restrictions, overtime cuts and laying off temporary and term employees, Chris Cummiskey, deputy undersecretary for management, told workers. If needed, furloughs in the sprawling agency will be handled on a “component” basis, Cummiskey indicated. The Park Service is still assessing whether furloughs will be needed, Jarvis said.

Even the intelligence community, made up of the CIA, National Security Agency and 14 other agencies, would not be spared. Although officials would not detail specific steps, the community will have to scale back research in next-generation technologies and delay fielding of a new intelligence-collection architecture, Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in an email. Intelligence analysis also could be affected, Turner said, posing the risk of “missing the early signs of a threat.”

After months of public silence on the potential effects of sequestration, agency heads have lately been predicting widespread fallout, ranging from longer airport security lines to delays in getting government-funded medicine to people with HIV, and fewer criminal cases brought by federal prosecutors.

“Sequestration will not be, as sometimes portrayed, a series of harmless and overdue ‘cuts in Washington,’ ” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to Congress last month.

GOP lawmakers were skeptical.

They pointed to Congressional Budget Office findings that only about half of the expected cuts would actually be felt by the end of September. Although the $85 billion represents the reduction in budget resources available to agencies in fiscal 2013, much of that money — such as funds committed to large, long-term construction projects — would be spent later, CBO said.

And as the administration warns of furloughs for food safety inspectors and Defense Department employees, the Labor Department is advertising for a staff assistant to answer phones for a maximum salary of $81,204, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in a letter to the administration that singled out State Department drivers and other “nonessential positions” being advertised in 10 vacancy announcements on USAJOBS.gov. Leaving those positions unfilled could save as much as $1.4 million “that could be redirected towards more essential jobs being targeted for sequestration savings,” Coburn wrote.

As of late last week, the White House had not replied, according to a Coburn aide.

“A lot of agencies are saying, ‘We don’t know what the hell is going to happen,’ ” said Lars Anderson, a government contracts attorney at the Venable law firm. Starting last fall, Anderson said, his clients began to see a slowdown in new contract awards and task orders. Besides putting a brake on hiring, the slowdown has also left firms with more employees than they need, Anderson added. If no sequestration resolution is in sight after this week, he predicted, “Some of my clients are going to start laying people off.”

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