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Labor Cost Management Is Key to Coping With Sequester at Agencies

David McNew/Getty Images
A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jet taxis into take-off position as cars enter Los Angles International Airport on Monday. Delays have been reported at some airports because of the furloughing of air traffic controllers under the sequester.

The next outcry could come May 24, when the IRS begins implementing furloughs for 89,000 employees, forcing the shutdown of the agency’s toll-free help and Taxpayer Assistance Centers.

“We settled on having uniform furlough dates for everyone and closing down agency operations entirely,” acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller wrote in a memo to workers. “This way, the IRS can gain additional cost savings on utilities and other services in our work locations.”

The sequester was triggered on March 1, but agencies had to give 30 days’ notice in formal notification of labor actions, delaying the start of these unpaid leaves.

It could be some time before furloughs begin at the Pentagon. Congress exempted 1.4 million men and women on active duty from furloughs, but the Pentagon may have to demand them of its estimated 718,000 civilian workers. The Pentagon has not yet announced a final decision on how many furlough days will be required, but work is under way to find alternatives.

Pentagon officials have been working on a reprogramming request to shift money to better manage the sequester. The Defense Department already has cut back on travel and maintenance and imposed a hiring freeze. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a House panel this month that the Pentagon still is trying to “at least minimize” the number of furlough days, even after having last month reduced its initial estimate.

“As you know, we’ve moved from 21 to 14 [days], and maybe we can get better, maybe we can’t,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon is trying to make the potential furloughs as painless as possible on the customers of its commissaries, said Ray Cantu, a meat cutter at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and a president of the AFGE unit that represents workers nationwide at the Defense Commissary Agency. He said his union sought to have the furloughs fall on Sundays, a day for which workers receive higher pay. That was rejected because Sunday is a busy shopping day at the commissaries, Cantu said.

“I thought the whole idea was to save money because of the debt,” Cantu said. “The customers could adjust to any day that we open or close.”

Some agencies have been able to avoid furloughs entirely. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg this month told a Senate panel that her agency cut back on travel and training expenses and on consulting grants to conserve money. The FDA also has not filled all of the positions that Congress had provided for through the regular budget.

“So we won’t be able to hire up as much as we would like,” Hamburg said. “But we won’t have to furlough anyone because we’re under where we would like to be, where we think we actually need to be.”

Other agencies may face similar questions if Congress does not amend the spending caps that will get even tighter next year under the sequester.

Democrats are pushing to raise the cap on regular discretionary spending back to the original $1.058 trillion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, but the second year of sequester will bring that down to $966 billion if nothing changes.

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