Federal employees respond as sequester takes toll
By Maurice Leach

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With the arrival of April 1, the across-the-board automatic spending cuts known as the sequester are still on schedule to go into effect. The $1.2 trillion in cuts authorized under the Budget Control Act negotiated by President Barack Obama and Congress were signed into law in August 2011. The objective of the legislation is to raise the debt ceiling and force Congress to form a long-term solution to the nation's ongoing budget deficit problems. The cuts will have a serious impact on the federal workforce, including furloughs of more than 1 million federal workers, a hiring freeze, cutbacks on overtime hours and a freeze on pay raises for six months.

INDUSTRY PULSE

Are sequestration cuts the right move to balance the country's budget?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

Some relief is being provided by the budget passed March 22 by the Senate. The initial cuts were across the board to all agencies, the $3.7 trillion budget passed by the Senate would allow some agencies — such as State, Veterans Affairs, Justice, Commerce, Agriculture, NASA, FDA and Homeland Security — more flexibility in how to make the cuts. However, other agencies — such as Energy, Education, EPA, Health, Housing, Interior and Transportation — are seeing no such relief.

Services added by the new budget include funding for meat inspection, border patrol and military tuition. The State Department received an increase in funding of $1.4 billion for diplomatic security overseas. Also, thanks to the new budget, the Pentagon can now delay furloughs of up to 800,000 employees until April 5, giving Defense Department officials time to consider whether the number of days lost for their employees because of furloughs could be reduced.

At many other agencies, 22-week-long furloughs are scheduled to begin in early April and many federal workers were being notified of their new reduced work schedules. The public can also expect deep cuts in essential services. In the energy sector, security and oversight is being reduced at nuclear facilities. Education will see cuts affecting as many 70,000 pupils for early education programs. Health will see reduced services provided for the mentally ill and homeless. Housing will see fewer repairs at a number of dilapidated public housing facilities, and some public housing projects will be closed. The FAA will proceed with its plan to close 149 air traffic control towers.

Federal workers have not taken the cuts quietly. A national day of protest was held March 19 with more than 100 rallies across the country. The protests were organized and supported by such unions and groups as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the National Education Association, Health Care for America, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), among others.

Hundreds of federal employees rallied in such cities as Beaufort, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; and Washington, D.C. Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, promised the day of protest was not a one-shot event.

"You are seeing people all across the country, hundreds of actions, each couple [of] weeks because D.C. doesn't seem to get the message," Lawson said.

The clear message from the rallies is the sequester puts an unfair burden on federal workers. Shannon McPeek, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1336 issued a statement saying: "Federal employees are hard-working Americans just like everyone else, less money in their pockets means less money to spend locally on food, clothing and other goods and services."

"It's been suggested that civilian employees will be required to take one day off a week for 22 weeks," said Bob Cannon, a Parris Island maintenance worker who participated in a local protest rally. This reduced income will hit federal workers' families hard, and the reduced spending power will have a negative impact on the economy across the nation.

An accountant working at a federal prison in El Reno, Okla., said the lost work hours would reduce her ability to save as she approaches retirement.

There is also the negative impact the sequester will have on important government services. In response to the cut backs at the FAA, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization released a statement warning "air safety will be seriously jeopardized." The group added "the rippling effect will cause confusion, serious delays and loss of revenues to local airports and the business community as a whole."

Federal workers facing a furlough-related pay cut should consider unemployment insurance to recoup some of the lost wages.