More than half of the federal workforce is likely to be furloughed over the next six months as agencies grapple with the sequester’s devastating budget cuts.
Agencies have so far announced at least 1.1 million furloughs lasting anywhere from five to 22 days by the end of September. This means the sequester will probably hit far more employees than even the November 1995 government shutdown, which caused 800,000 employees to be furloughed for five days.
But the practical effects of how furloughs will be imposed will vary greatly. Some, such as the Defense Department, are furloughing virtually their entire civilian staffs, but others, such as the Labor Department, are targeting furloughs to spare certain activities. Some agencies will require employees to spread out their unpaid days off so offices can keep operating, at least limitedly.
But others, such as the Housing and Urban Development Department and Environmental Protection Agency, are planning to have virtually all their employees take furloughs on the same days and shut down entirely.
Henry Romero, a federal human resources consultant and former Office of Personnel Management executive, said the lack of a common strategy across the government for furloughing employees and reducing government services will ultimately be unfair to federal employees and damaging to the public.
“On the surface, it seems like good management from [the Office of Management and Budget], giving agency heads flexibility and discretion” to find their own ways to absorb the sequester cuts, Romero said. “But the result is a patchwork quilt of decision-making. It seems like there ought to be a common approach.”
Romero said OMB should have provided stricter guidance to agencies on how they should look for ways to cut spending before furloughing employees, such as cutting spending on contracts. For example, he said, Defense spends billions of dollars each year on contracts but was the first to announce it would furlough almost its entire workforce for the maximum 22 days.
“You think, ‘Wait a minute, did they even try to reduce those other expenses?’” Romero said. “With so many service contracts, you’d think a reduction to those outlays would reduce” the need to furlough employees.
Unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees also have heavily criticized agencies’ furlough plans and said the government should do more to reduce spending on services contracts before furloughing employees.
And furloughs will ultimately degrade the government services the public depends on, Romero and union officials said last week.
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said border crossings, cargo ports, and airports already don’t have enough Customs and Border Protection officers to quickly inspect cargo and process travelers. CBP’s plans to furlough its entire 60,000-person workforce for up to 14 days will only make matters worse, she said.
“There is no escaping the reality that sequestration is having serious effects on the traveling public and on vital commerce,” Kelley said. “These impacts will only get worse the longer sequestration continues, especially as the busy summer travel season approaches.”
Members of the public will eventually start to notice when offices they need to go to start shutting down, Romero said. HUD said last week that its headquarters and field offices will shut down entirely for seven days between May and August.
But Labor tried to spare as many field employees as possible when it issued furlough notices to about 4,700 employees on March 5 — roughly 28 percent of its workforce. Labor spokesman Steve Barr said some agencies within Labor will likely be able to find most of their sequester-required budget cuts from contracts or grant programs, and, as a result, will not have to furlough as many employees or may be able to avoid furloughs entirely. He said Labor Department managers are still combing through their budgets to find other places to save money to avoid furloughing employees.
“It’s a fluid situation,” Barr said. “We’re still hoping to realize efficiencies and economies” that will allow Labor to cancel at least some of the furloughs.
Recruitment, retention concerns
Furloughs could have longer-term effects on the federal workforce and the government’s recruitment efforts, Romero said.
“Certainly you already see it in terms of damage to the brand of the federal government, in terms of being a desirable employer,” Romero said. “Two years ago, agencies were not having problems recruiting people, because of the recession and the government’s status as a stable employer. Now the private economy is improving, just as the government is getting all of this negative press.”
Romero said that with near-constant talk of federal furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts, the best and brightest college graduates may opt for the private sector instead of public service. This will especially hurt efforts to recruit scientists, engineers and other in-demand graduates.
“All this negativity and fed-bashing is having a big impact,” Romero said. “It will take time to recover.”
And the bad news is likely to encourage older feds to retire and take their knowledge with them, Romero said.
Newly retired budget analyst Robert Browning, who spent 21 years either serving in the military or working for the government, is one of them. Browning, who worked for Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization until he retired Jan. 30, said he got fed up with the political squabbling in Washington and constant threats to his pay and benefits.
“I could see the handwriting on the wall,” Browning said. “I was going to start losing pay and benefits. Best to retire before they take it from you. They’ve already taken enough.”
Like all other federal employees, Browning’s pay scales had already been frozen for two years. He knew his pay was going to be cut about 20 percent once furloughs kicked in, and he feared that proposals to raise his pension contributions or enact a high-five system that would lower his pension would gain traction. But Browning also said he grew tired of politicians using federal employees as pawns. The stress was enough to raise his blood pressure and cause him difficulty sleeping, he said.
So he took a buyout, and almost as soon as he left the government, his stress-related health problems vanished.
“I took great pride in my job, and I did my job pretty daggone good,” Browning said. “But all this political stupidity that’s going on right now? That really irritated me, big time. My gut was always in turmoil. So I said, ‘I’m done, I’m just quitting.’”