Budget

Sequestration: An agency view

illustration dollar sign in vise

As sequestration forces agencies to cut spending, federal employees can expect a range of consequences. (Stock image)

With no resolution in sight to avert the sequester, agencies are just hours away from having to ramp up measures to adopt the across-the-board budget cuts, including implementing furloughs.

During the past few months, agencies have intensified their preparations to work under tighter fiscal conditions, whether planning for a pay freeze, reduced overall spending or furloughs.

While furloughs have always been on the table, it is an option most agencies want to avoid if they can. Some agencies, such as NASA, the Small Business Administration and the Government Accountability Office, have said they will implement the cuts without having to furlough employees. In contrast, the Defense Department is planning furloughs for more than 800,000 employees.  (Related article).

Other agencies also say they can't avoid furloughs. When Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta testified Feb. 27 before the House Transportation Committee, he said FAA had looked at all the alternatives to cut costs, including a hiring freeze, fewer contracts and less travel, to spare the 47,000-strong workforce.

"But to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have little choice but to make up the rest through furloughing employees," Huerta said. The furloughs could cost employees up to 20 percent of their pay, he said.

Other agencies’ sequester plans include:

Agriculture Department: More than 30 percent of the USDA's 100,000 employees could be furloughed for nearly two weeks, according to a White House statement.

Environmental Protection Agency: Employees could face as many as 13 furlough days, according to a Feb. 26 internal memo from Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

Government Accountability Office: The watchdog said a sequester at the proposed $27.3 million would slash its planned hiring by 60 percent and cut current staffing level to 2,875 full-time equivalents, a decrease of 472 FTEs.

Health and Human Services Department: In a Feb. 1 letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did not specifically address furloughs but wrote about the sweeping consequences to HHS programs if the sequester were to happen.

Homeland Security Department: A large number of law enforcement personnel could see furloughs of up to 14 days, Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Feb. 14 letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Customs and Border Protection plans to furlough employees for one day each pay period starting early to mid-April through September, the equivalent of a 10-percent pay cut. The Transportation Security Administration would need to furlough 50,000 officers for up to seven days.

Labor Department: Acting Secretary Seth Harris sent employees an email Feb. 20 mentioning furloughs in general, but offered no specifics on the agency’s own planned actions. "I personally hoped that furloughs could be avoided, because they will interrupt the important services we provide to the American people and because of the impact on your livelihood and your families," Harris said.

Social Security Administration: In a Feb. 7 letter to Congress, former Commissioner Michael Astrue wrote the agency would try to avoid furloughs, "however, the possibility of furloughs remain uncertain at this time."

However, agencies may maintain business as usual for a little while, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

"If there’s no agreement between administration and Congress, sequestration will officially go into effect March 1 and the initial impact will be fairly minimal," he said. "Nobody will be furloughed Monday, March 4 because employees will have been given 30-day notice and 30 days to respond."

I dare you to read their stories and tell me that what’s happening to these people is OK -- William Dugan, Federal Workers Alliance.

Programmatically, every agency not exempt in the sequestration bill will have to figure out how to survive on a leaner budget. Considering the sequester could last for the remainder of the fiscal year, "you don’t wait until the end of the fiscal year because if you haven’t saved your money until then, you shut down the agency and that’s not acceptable," Palguta said.

So, agencies should clamp down on spending by any means necessary -- canceling travel and training, shutting down contracts, or considering hiring freezes. "And the longer [the sequester] goes, the greater the negative impact we’re going to see on agency operations and on employees," Palguta warned.

Recent surveys have shown that the looming sequester causes worry among not only feds but the general public. In a Feb. 27 survey of 1,000 Americans, most said sequestration would have a major effect on the economy and the U.S. military, according to the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post. (Related article).

Federal employees themselves have concerns a sequester might push them deeper into debt and make it harder to keep up with their bills. In a Feb. 26 survey released by National Treasury Employees Union, 80 percent of the employees surveyed said furloughs would make it tough to pay their rent or mortgage, utility bills and food. Sixty percent said they would have to dip into their savings or retirement plans to pay for expenses. (Related article).

"It’s very frustrating, obviously, for many federal employees because many don’t have a lot of money stocked away and some of them are paycheck to paycheck, and that’s going to cause some disruption," Palguta said.

The Federal Workers Alliance’s newly-launched message board has seen an outpouring of that dissatisfaction. Since its recent launch, hundreds of federal employees have shared their stories on how potential sequestration furloughs would impact their lives. "I dare you to read their stories and tell me that what’s happening to these people is OK," said FWA Chairman William Dougan. "These aren’t just ‘faceless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.’ These are single mothers, widows, and couples nearing retirement who are frightened that 20 percent or more of their pay will disappear overnight. After more than two years of frozen pay these people were already on the edge; sequestration furloughs will be the final shove over."

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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