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We Answer Your Sequestration Questions – The What, Why, When of Furloughs

Sequestration goes into effect on Friday and the quickly approaching deadline has feds asking a lot of questions. Like when will furloughs happen and for how long?

Last week we talked with John Mahoney a partner and chair of the Labor and Employment Law Practice at Tully Rinckey about knowing your rights if you are furloughed. You can check out the full post here.

We had Mahoney back on the show with Chris Dorobek to answer some of your furlough questions. Just a note these are general answers. For specific cases you can contact Tully Rinckey or another employment attorney.

When Would the Furloughs Start?

“There will be a 30 day advance notice period before the furloughs begin. There is some expectation that pressure will really be put on Congress and the White House to resolve the sequestration issue between March 1st and the 31st. Furlough notices are expected to go out Monday if they can’t find a sequestration resolution on Friday. The furloughs would then start in early April,” said Mahoney.

Average Pay Cut?

“A 20% pay cut is what most furloughed feds are looking at between now and September 30th,” said Mahoney.

Retro-Active Pay?

“This is different situation than with something like the shutdowns of the 1990s. With the sequester the government is required to cut $85 billion from the federal government’s operating budget between now and September 30th, the end of the fiscal year. This is really the 1st time a furlough will stick and cause agencies to put feds in some sort of non-pay status. This will probably not be fixed by retroactive appropriations,” said Mahoney.

Can You Get A Second Job?

“It’s very likely that furloughed feds will not authorized to seek replacement or second jobs. And even if they were given permission it would be difficult to find a second job because they are likely to get unpaid status for one day a week. So it would be hard to find a replacement job with that type of flexibility,” said Mahoney.

Can You File for Unemployment if You Are Furloughed?

“Folks will be able to file unemployment requests in the states where they work. But this will also have a major impact on unemployment benefits especially in states with a large federal workforce,” said Mahoney.

How Does the Furlough Work for Probationary Feds?

They are treated like any other federal employee. But there are two big issues for them:

  1. “The question is do probationary feds get credited service for the completion of their probationary period while they are furloughed? Right now it’s all up in the air. I would think they wouldn’t get credit for while they are on unpaid leave. We will have to see what happens on the backend once the sequestration resolution has been reached. There is a chance it will be retroactively added,” said Mahoney.
  2. “Probationary feds do not have MSPB appeal rights. So if you are a probationary employee and you feel the agency that you work for is not fairly doling out furlough notices your only real recourse is to file an EEO complain if you believe it is discriminatory based on race, color, age etc. or if it is violating another prohibited personnel practice like Veterans preference or whistleblower reprisals. You would file those complaints through the Office of Special Counsel,” said Mahoney. For more on MSPB grievances click here.

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Dale M. Posthumus

I have been having problems with the numbers being thrown around. “A 20% pay cut…between now and September 30.” I have often heard in the press that a typical furlough may be 14 days. If my calculations are correct, that accounts for only 9-10% of the work/holiday days remaining from March 1. Thus a furlough would have to be 28 days for employees to face a 20% pay cut over the next seven months. I would be interested in hearing how Mr. Muhoney comes to the 20% figure. My intent is not to diminish the impact of the furloughs. Even a 10% loss will be felt, and for some, will be very serious. I would welcome anyones explanation if my figures are wrong. I just don’t see the value in exaggerating the impact (or underplaying), as the Administration has done at times.

Dale M. Posthumus

Jacqueline, as I understand, it is harder to gauge the impact on contractors (I am a contractor). The Govt will cancel some contracts outright; those contract employees will most likely lose their jobs. Maintenance contracts may be maintained, or could be trimmed. How this impacts the contract employee depends upon how the company chooses to implement any changes in the contract.

Allison Wetter

Mr. Mahoney’s comment on When Would Furloughs Start? is not all true. Agencies will have about 2 weeks after it’s determined furloughs will take effect to prepare the proposal notices that will be provided to employees with 30 days to reply, following adverse action procedures. As of now, this would take place around 15 March for Dept of the Navy and furloughs would not take effect until late April. This may all be different for each Agency.

Earl Rice

What it really comes down to is what Agency you are in. Department of Veterans Affairs is exempt from the Sequestration (bet most of you didn’t know that). Thus, to them it is business as usual. DOD has plans to furlough people 1 day per week (this is where the 20% cut in pay comes in), thus two days per pay period, or 16 hours per pay period (and you work out the details locally). But, each Agency within DOD is putting a slight twist on it to try and maintain some coverage over the entire week. Other Agencies are putting together their plans. And as far as notices, etc., it will in part be dependent upon if the position is bargaining unit or not, and what the Labor Agreement is with whatever Union is the representative. The latest thing I read today was “if the “Agencies” would cut all travel except for absolute emergency essential, actually trim the fat out of their programs (get rid of the Gee Whiz stuff), not fill non-critical positions, there would be no need to furlough the core full time permanent employees (typically called career conditional or career in the Title 5 word). Will the hammer fall Friday (tomorrow). No, it will not. And why are they planning the furlough instead of a RIF? Well, they want to keep the employees tied to their job till they figure out what is going to rally shake out of this whole mess (and if start a RIF, people bail as soon as they start mentioning it and probably will not come back). As one guy stated, this is only a 2% reduction in the budget, just a drop in the bucket. All of us took at least a 2% reduction in our paychecks last month, and I haven’t heard of the courts being flooded with Bankruptcies because of it. Folks, there are many “chicken little’s” running around yelling the sky is falling, and when questioned for specifics, you either get a blank stare or some wild 4 horsemen apocalyptic answer. I for one am not going to stay up till midnight and see if it does. I also really wonder how much of the sky is falling and furloughs, etc. are part of the political “chicken little sky is falling” game that the press has been pushing. So, first wait and see if it actually happens. And even if it does happen, worrying about it now isn’t going to change anything.

Dale M. Posthumus

Thanks, Earl, for the info about 20%. Which goes to show how the worse-case gets played up as the “typical”. Federal Diary in the Post this morning said 10%. Washington Technology said 10% and listed several agencies who will do the one-day-per pay-period furlough. For weeks, we have been told this could affect getting our tax refunds. According to CNN this morning, the IRS announced there will be no impact on processing and getting refunds out. Remember the meat industry will be shut down and we won’t get any meat, milk, or eggs? Well, SecAg finally said they will alternate furloughs (also one day per pay period) so that won’t happen. Hours longer waits at airports? Washington Technology said this morning that TSA is expected to do 5%, one day per month furloughs. Then, WaPo cites four agencies that won’t furlough at all because they have already figured out how to get by. Said Smithsonian was planning since the beginning of the fiscal year. Careful with budget and spending, will be one of those that will not furlough anybody.

This is the problem. Sequestration is not good because it is across the board (excpet for exemptions) and doesn’t consider what needs to be cut or reorganized. But, by exaggerating the impact, “the sky will fall”, when that doesn’t happen, people around the country will believe the President and Congress even less and Fed employees will take another undeserved hit to their reputation. The Govt will survive sequestration, Fed and contractor employees will suffer personally, and this will start all over again on the next debt ceiling and budget talks.