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If you want to know where all the anger over federal employee furloughs is being directed, look no further than the tiny Merit Systems Protection Board.
With a 200-person staff, the independent agency charged with hearing challenges of “adverse” personnel actions is being inundated with appeals, as an estimated 800,000 employees — including 650,000 from the Defense Department — have now faced furloughs since the sequester began in March.
The agency normally handles around 7,000 cases per year, but it has already received about 3,000 furlough-related appeals, most of them filed after the DoD furloughs took effect the week of July 8.
“We’re literally getting hundreds and hundreds a day,” MSPB Chairman Susan Grundmann said in an interview this week. “The daily number is going to go up before it goes down.”
The agency is already seeking to consoliate cases where possible. Still, Grundmann acknowledged that the deluge of appeals could slow overall decision times. “Let’s see what happens.”
The impact is also reverberating at the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, a private nonprofit group that provides no-interest loans to federal workers struggling to pay rent or meet other pressing needs.
After distributing just four furlough-related loans in May, the fund had so far approved 52 in July on top of 82 in June, according to Robyn Kehoe, FEAA’s director of field operations. Most DoD employees will see their first short paycheck next week, she said Thursday. “Once that happens, we’re expecting things will get a little crazier.”
Furloughs are one tactic that agencies are using to close the gap caused by sequester-related budget cuts. In some instances, they have recalibrated their original plans.
The IRS, for example, this week canceled a fourth furlough day that had been scheduled for July 22 after finding savings elsewhere in its budget. An Aug. 30 furlough day is still scheduled, although acting agency chief Danny Werfel indicated that its status is under review.
But while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has held out hope that the Pentagon may shave a few furlough days from the current 11 that are planned, many in the DoD workforce have given up hope of a reprieve. The effects extend to overseas facilities where at least some employees had initially expected to be exempted.
“There are serious morale issues now,” said one DoD civilian stationed at a support base in the Middle East. Employees affected by furloughs are also barred from receiving overtime pay that’s a major source of extra income for many, he said. Besides shaking employees’ faith in government, the furloughs are also prompting some to rethink extending their tours abroad, he said. The employee, citing concerns about retribution, asked that neither he nor the country in which he is stationed be named.
There also is a new Facebook group, titled “How I Spent My Furlough Day,” which has attracted more than 3,300 members. While the group bills itself as a forum “to share photos and reflections,” it also serves as a sampler of the stew of emotions surrounding the furlough issue.
“Why does no one seems to care?” one DoD employee wrote after noting that some single mothers on his team are having to borrow against their retirement accounts. Another called on the devil to “wreak havoc on the conscience of the Prez, Congress and those that have beaten down our military support civilian workforce.”
Still others summoned their colleagues to step up pressure on Congress and the White House to end the furloughs. In a petition drive launched this week on the White House website, “We the People,” Defense Department employees asked Obama to “please help us protect our families and honestly our morale, by ending this unnecessary furlough!”
Under White House rules, the petition will have to draw 100,000 signatures by mid-August to warrant an official administration response. As of late this week, the count stood at little more than 1,000.
The odds of congressional action appeared equally slim.
Although several lawmakers have introduced legislation to end or limit the use of furloughs, none of the bills has so far gained traction.