Furloughs pose pitfalls for managers, rank-and-file feds

Monday - 2/18/2013, 4:31pm EST

John Mahoney on "The Federal Drive" with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

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Talk of federal-employee furloughs has intensified as the clock winds down to March 1 — the date automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are set to kick in.

But even if agencies are forced to go the furlough route, they will have to ensure the workforce reductions are implemented fairly or face a series of potential pitfalls.

Unionized federal employees — about 26.9 percent of the federal workforce — have the right to bargain over the "impact and implementation" of furloughs, said John Mahoney, chairman of Tully Rinckey's labor and employment practice group, in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

John Mahoney

And, regardless whether an employee is covered by a union, all employees need to receive 30 days' notice and the opportunity to respond to notices, Mahoney said.

So the timeframe for when furloughs would actually be implemented (if sequestration goes into effect next month) would be pushed back to the end of April or even early May, Mahoney said.

Furloughs come with costly appeals process

"The goal is to try to roll this out in a way that has the least amount of impact on federal employees," Mahoney said.

But in doing so, managers need to make sure they follow all the rules and regulations relating to furloughs and take particular care that they are implemented equitably.

"If the furloughs are not implemented fairly [or] if an employee or a group of employees ... feel like the furloughs are not being applied equally across the board, they can file an Equal Employment Opportunity discrimination complaint," Mahoney said.

That could make the promised cost-savings more difficult to realize.

"Congress believes that these furloughs are going to save the government lots of money, but in reality they can lead to a very expensive complaint and appeals process across the board for these hundreds of thousands of employees who may be impacted by furloughs," Mahoney said.

To eliminate even the whiff of impropriety, managers should apply the furloughs to entire jobs series or grade levels as opposed to "picking and choosing" certain employees from various grades or job series, Mahoney said.

A logistical 'nightmare'

"This is something that has to be thought out well by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to determine how, exactly, they're going to implement these across-the-board furloughs," Mahoney said. "I mean, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of potential federal employees who may, at this point, lose up to 20 percent of their pay for a 30-day period or longer."

MSPB has previously published guidance on employee furloughs during government shutdowns stemming from lapsed spending bills.

But because sequestration furloughs would potentially ensnare nearly all federal employees — including those deemed "essential" — the furlough process becomes that much more complicated, Mahoney said.

"Logistically, it's going to be a nightmare, frankly, for all the federal agencies to put together their plans to furlough people fairly and meet congressional and presidential requirements, and that they do so effective March 1 if that deadline is not extended," Mahoney said.

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