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Fed unions blast, and brace for, furloughs

Federal employee unions loudly protested budget reductions and staff furloughs, all of which threatened through the final days and hours left to Congress to free itself from across-the-board cuts mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Federal employee unions loudly protested budget reductions and staff furloughs, all of which threatened through the final days and hours left to Congress to free itself from across-the-board cuts mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

But the chiefs of those unions, for the most part, did not hold out much hope of turning things around—at least not before the deadline passed. For most employees at most departments, this will mean one-day-per-week involuntary, unpaid furloughs—a 20 percent pay cut—if Congress fails to rescind the sequester by a Mar. 1 deadline, with furloughs to follow soon afterward across most agencies.

“It does not look good,” William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, told FEND. “It’s really disappointing that Congress just doesn’t seem able to find a solution to the problem, one that in fact they created.”

“I think the potential for a [quick resolution] on this does not exist,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told FEND. “I am not optimistic about that.”

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox told CNN Feb. 25 that he also didn’t expect a solution before the deadline, while noting that a sequester could still be stopped—if only Congress would just “pass a budget [and] move this country forward.”

NFFE: DOD in focus

“The vast majority of our membership is certainly going to be adversely affected by the sequestration,” NFFE’s Dougan told FEND. “Even before a sequester, a lot of our members have been living paycheck to paycheck, [and] with 20 percent of their pay likely to be taken away, it really calls into question whether they can pay their mortgage and rent, keep their lights on and put food on their table.”

“These folks are going to have to be making some very tough choices—with that much of their income disappearing overnight,” Dougan added, emphasizing that most of his union’s members work for DOD, leaving a wide disconnect in the air between the hand-to-mouth fed pay facts and a media focus on Defense contractor “fat cats.”

Dougan lamented another disconnect that might come into focus if across-the-board cuts hit: the country “depends on DOD.”

“In terms of having the most impact—direct and indirect—here we’re talking our military readiness, for God’s sakes,” Dougan told FEND. “With everything that’s going on over there—in the Middle East, you have several countries in an uproar and Iran getting more and more capable—but, just anticipating the sequester, the Navy can’t send a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf!”

Dougan called for quick action. He asked that his union members and other feds contact their representatives on Capitol Hill. He added that members of the public also must do the same, in order to bring enough pressure to cause Congress to compromise, and actually balance cuts with new revenues.

“Because it’s the public that’s going to see a decrease in the services provided,” Dougan told FEND. “There will be longer security lines at the airport, longer lines at the Social Security office, and longer waits on the phone with the IRS. They’re going to be adversely impacted—and very unhappy with sequestration, when it kicks in.”

But Dougan said it will take not only deteriorating conditions, and public pressure—but also time—to put Congress over the top.

“People need to make their views known. And the thing that will solve this—if it happens, and lasts—is as National Parks and federal offices curtail their hours, over time,” Dougan said. “You’ll see people raise their voices and get mad, and it will have an impact.”

“It could get like it did back in the ‘90s when Newt Gingrich shut down the government—twice,” Dougan noted, adding that those two events led to a major public outcry. “That’s what it took to end it.”

“It all comes back to Congress,” Dougan said, expanding that though the president signed the 2011 sequester law, Congress developed and passed it. “They’re the creator of this problem—this Frankenstein. And they can’t seem to figure out how to deal with the problem that they’ve created—and that’s inexcusable.”

NTEU: Hope seen in possible CR compromise

In the closing weeks leading up to the current crisis, officers with every top federal employee union have expressed hope that Congress might compromise and stop the sequester—if not from happening, at least from enduring—and that this might head off the imposition of furloughs. On Feb. 27, it was NTEU’s Colleen Kelley who gave voice to this possible, partial way out.

“I’m hopeful that with another deadline—the continuing resolution deadline—coming, on March 21, that this one could force a resolution of both issues—the sequester and the CR, before anybody has to take any furlough days,” Kelley told FEND.

“Meanwhile, employees are identifying issues that are personal to them, how it will affect them with these reductions in pay that will affect them.” Kelley continued. “Customs and Border Protection are talking about it, for instance, 14 unpaid furlough days through the rest of the fiscal year. There are just heart-wrenching stories, since CBP employees are already operating under a 27-month pay freeze.”

Kelley pointed also to the IRS, also heavily represented by NTEU, and where furloughs obviously would hit just when the high demands of tax season also peaks.

“The impacts are devastating not just for the federal employees—through those furloughs—but to the whole country, which is depending on the federal employees to provide these services.”

Endgame in the coming several days … or weeks?

“I think the CR may collide with the sequester, and force some end to this situation,” Kelley reiterated. “If the CR expires, there will not be one dollar for any agency that uses appropriated funds—and we’ll be looking at a government shutdown. And that’s why there’s a potentially different impact the deadline on Mar. 27, than the one on Mar. 1.”

“I always hold out for hope,” Dougan told FEND. “I try to be optimistic—I just don’t think that the Republicans and Democrats are going to be willing to compromise, and really try to come together while setting politics aside, and do the right thing for the federal workforce, and the taxpayers and public of this country.”

“I expect you’re going to see labor become more vocal,” Dougan added---while, like Kelley, in the end acknowledging only the remotest possibility of an early compromise. “I think you’ll see feds take to the streets—informational demonstrations. We’re fed up with this Congress. Why are we electing and re-electing people who are incapable or unwilling to do the business of the people?”

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