The Defense Department and at least a handful of other agencies are rolling back or rethinking plans for civilian employee furloughs in the wake of a newly passed spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2013.
DoD, for example, is cutting the number of furlough days for hundreds of thousands of workers from 22 days to 14 days through September, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last week.
At the Justice Department, which had begun telling employees in February that they could face up to 14 days of unpaid time off, Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that a final decision will be postponed until mid-April.
And the Border Patrol has decided not to pursue furloughs, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents.
All of those steps came after President Obama signed the fiscal 2013 spending measure approved by Congress late last month. The legislation, which replaced a continuing resolution that expired March 27, locks in $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts but also gives select agencies more flexibility in how they can spend the money they have left.
Chief among those agencies is DoD, which gets a transfer of more than $10 billion into the operations and maintenance account that pays civilian salaries. Furlough notices had been set to go out April 5. Now, civilian employees will be told in May that they must take “up to 112 hours or 14 days” off during the final 14 weeks of the fiscal year from June through September, according to a senior DoD official speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It’s good news from where we were two weeks ago,” Hagel said at a Pentagon news briefing.
But some union leaders question why any furloughs are still needed. By Hagel’s count, furloughs will save about $2.5 billion, or roughly one-quarter of the money moved into the O&M account.
Pentagon leaders “have always had the flexibility to impose budget cuts from sequestration in any way they chose,” J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. While cutting the number of days off “shows that they’re listening,” he added, “they still haven’t gotten the whole message.”
Although the reduction is a good start, the furloughs will still impose a significant financial hit, especially for workers in lower pay grades who make $30,000 to $40,000 a year, said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
“There are a lot of employees in the federal government that live paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
Although some 750,000 DoD civilians are potentially subject to furloughs, senior leaders are still debating how many to exempt. “This is a difficult and complicated decision, and the leadership wants to consider all of the primary and secondary effects,” the Defense official said.
Some unofficial estimates suggest that at least 10 percent of the overall workforce will be spared, including about 5 percent of Navy and Marine Corps civilians and 24 percent of their Army counterparts. When furloughs start in June, local managers will likely decide whether individual workers should either take one day off per week or be allowed to cluster their required time off into larger blocks, the official said.
Also getting a break are some 8,400 Agriculture Department meat inspectors. They had been facing furloughs of up to 11 days, but lawmakers — partly in response to lobbying from the meatpacking industry — redirected $55 million to to keep inspectors on the job full-time.
The $85 billion in cuts, officially known as a sequester, began taking effect March 1. They were required under the 2011 Budget Control Act because lawmakers and the Obama administration could not agree on a way to reduce future deficits by $1.2 trillion through 2021. Absent any changes, the budget act mandates another eight years of sequesters.
While lawmakers from both parties have decried the cuts as “dumb” and “devastating,” they have so far been unable to devise a way out. The challenge looms largest at the Defense Department, which is having to absorb a $41 billion cut, or about 8 percent of its base budget this year.
“We are in triage mode in terms of getting through this year,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said in a webinar last week hosted by the Association of Government Accountants. Besides employee furloughs, he said, the department is laying off temporary workers, ending almost all maintenance at its bases and reviewing and delaying contracts, Hale said. “This is one of the most distasteful tasks that I have had to do in my four years” as comptroller, he said.
For many federal programs, the newly passed spending bill will provide little, if any, relief because it freezes their funding at last year’s levels, minus a 5 percent sequester-related cut.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has shown no sign of reconsidering plans for up to 13 furlough days, said Chuck Orzehoskie, president of the AFGE council that represents 10,000 EPA employees. The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to begin furloughs of one day per pay period for all employees on April 21, Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an email.
Although the Border Patrol has told the union it is canceling planned furloughs, it is still set to eliminate administratively uncontrollable overtime, Moran said. That move will take a much larger bite out of agents’ pay than furloughs, he said.
At Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, spokeswoman Jenny Burke would not confirm any specific steps being taken in response to the spending bill’s passage. CBP officials are “developing a plan to implement this budget in a way that minimizes the impact on operations and our workforce,” Burke said in a statement.
The sequester “is a horrible way to manage government; that’s the bottom line,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. While the repercussions so far may not have registered with the general public, “the impact will become more and more noticeable” the longer the sequester lasts, Palguta said.
Even before the bill’s passage, Holder made an emergency transfer of $150 million to head off daily furloughs of almost 3,600 correctional officers at federal prisons around the country. “This action was necessary to protect the life and safety of our staff, inmates and the public,” he said in the March 28 memo announcing the postponement of a furlough decision for other Justice employees until mid-April.
Holder attributed the delay to the need to assess the impact of the recent budget changes as Justice Department managers work on options “to mitigate the harshest negative effects this fiscal year.”
Among those waiting for an answer is Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association. Because lawmakers set aside some $8.2 billion for FBI salaries and expenses in the spending bill, Motyka was hopeful that the bureau’s workforce could avoid furloughs.
“It’s fair to say that the membership is very concerned and watching with apprehension, as is true across the whole federal government,” Motyka said. “Will there be an operational impact? Absolutely.”
Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this story.