Sequestration silence stokes furlough fears

Anxiety is once again growing within the federal workforce as agencies secretly prepare contingency plans for the looming across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

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If Congress does not act, $85 billion in automatic cuts would begin to take effect in two weeks. 

Agencies, under instruction from the White House, are drafting plans to operate with their budgets slashed — and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a fresh warning Friday that hundreds of thousands of employee furloughs would be in order.

Which workers – and for how long – remains a mystery.

“It’s very, very real – and very, very concerning,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents roughly 150,000 workers across 31 federal agencies. 

“What employees are saying is, 'What about my agency? What about me?’”

Most of more than two-dozen federal workers and contractors contacted about the pending cuts said they were worried about the potential of losing wages to sequestration. 

Several added that they had grown weary of the threat, which also loomed late last year before Congress struck a deal to postpone the cuts until March 1. Being kept in the dark, they said, made matters worse.

“They’ve put us through an awful lot of uncertainty,” said Sarah Hoffman a statistician at the U.S. Agriculture Department.  “It’s not worth the heartburn.”

Government contractors said they, too, feared the chopping block if Congress allows the cuts to take effect.  

Among them was Bob Craig, who works for a firm that provides security to the Department of Health and Human Services on a contract set to expire later this year.

“After that, who knows?” Craig questioned. “After a while, we just try not to think about it.”

Agencies were first faced with specter of sequestration upon passage of the Budget Control Act of August 2011, which designed the blunt cuts as an incentive for Congress to reach accord on tax and spending issues.

It has failed in that regard, forcing agencies to prepare contingency plans for cuts that were never intended to take place.  

No department would be hit harder than Defense.

Speaking this week at Georgetown University, retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said as many as 800,000 civilian Defense employees would face furloughs of up to 22 days and risk losing 20 percent of their salaries.

“There isn't anybody I've talked to on Capitol Hill that doesn't think this is crazy,” Panetta said.

The planning is under way at smaller agencies, as well.

At the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, officials had identified roughly 20 cost-cutting measures that didn’t involve furloughs — in hopes of keeping employees on the job if sequestration hits, spokesman David Sellers said.  

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to cut to the bone everything that is not people,” Sellers said.

Other agencies declined to elaborate on their plans, referring questions to the budget office.

On Friday, OMB Federal Controller Danny Werfel said departments across government were developing their plans in accordance with a White House memorandum issued last month.

Since then, he said some agency heads have sent guidance to employees explaining the planning and the potential for furloughs. He said in most cases furloughed workers are given 30-days advance warning.

Several employees said the memos were vaguely written. The NTEU’s Kelley said she understood that agencies are aiming to keep panic to a minimum. But with the prospect of some employees losing 10 to 20 percent of their pay, OMB should do more to solicit dialogue with employees and unions as they look for ways to cut costs and avoid furloughs.

“Those conversations should have started a long time ago,” she said.

With time growing short, the White House on Friday urged Congress to act and warned of the far–reaching implications of the cuts. Administration officials said the cuts would hurt everything from law enforcement efforts and social services to food inspections.

Werfel reiterated the deep pain the cuts would inflict on the workforce.

“If we go past this date, there’s certainly -- there’s no way to implement the sequester without significant furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal employees,” he said.

The officials said they were holding out hope that Congress would again postpone the sequester by a approving a package containing more moderate cuts balanced with additional tax revenue.

For some workers, optimism that Congress would again avert sequestration wore thin.

“Everybody’s thinking that at the last minute the cavalry is going to come in,” said Bill Ashley, an accountant for the Agriculture Department. “I’m not so sure this time.”