Civilian agencies set to release sequestration details to employees

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 6:25pm EST

Civilian federal agencies are expected to begin telling employees how automatic budget cuts set to go into effect in March will impact them, according to federal employee unions who were briefed by Obama administration officials.

The Office of Management and Budget gave agency heads the go-ahead to begin communicating to their employees as early as Tuesday about the possible effects of sequestration, including employee furloughs.

The automatic cuts, slated to hit March 1, would require an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut to agency budgets.

OMB and the Office of Personnel Management briefed federal-employee union officials Monday.

The notices that agencies send to employees will not serve as an actual notice of furlough, according to a statement from National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley. Instead, the agency guidance will present a range of options to be taken should the budget cuts be implemented.

That includes reviewing contract spending for potential savings and cutting back on travel and training.

In a memo issued last month, OMB told agency heads to "intensify" their planning for sequestration, including considering reducing civilian workforce costs through hiring freezes and buyout offers. But OMB directed agencies not to take any immediate actions at that time.

Will unions be kept in the loop?

Administration officials reassured union leaders that agencies should keep federal unions informed of their sequestration plans. Kelley said NTEU has been trying to wrest information about the impact of the cuts.

"However, NTEU does not yet have specific details of what agencies are planning," she said in a statement. "NTEU is asking agencies to first examine government contracts and look to make cuts in those programs, as well as other cost-cutting measures that can be taken before considering furloughs."

The American Federal of Government Employees denounced the earlier guidance from OMB for imposing a "disproportionate sacrifice" of the planning on federal workers as opposed to reducing contract spending. AFGE President J. David Cox continued that line of criticism with the latest announcement.

"OMB has served up a buffet of cuts for agencies to make to the federal workforce in the event that sequestration takes effect beginning March. ... Yet OMB still hasn't given agencies any useful or explicit guidance for reducing spending on service contracts," Cox said in a statement. "According to this latest memo, OMB is still examining contracts, grants and other expenditures to determine where spending reductions might be made."

Another sequestration delay?

The Defense Department has also issued sequestration-planning guidance to its components. Many of the services, such as the Army and the Air Force, have put a freeze on civilian hiring in the face of ongoing budget uncertainty. The Navy has also begun implementing two rounds of budget cutbacks.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama asked Congress Tuesday to delay the implementation of sequestration — which lawmakers have already done once — and instead focus on a short-term deficit-reduction package.

However, congressional Republican leaders pounced on Obama's proposal, saying additional tax hikes to reduce the deficit are off the table.

And even federal unions are looking askance at another sequestration delay.

"Kicking the can down the road may be a good option for elected officials, but it does nothing to relieve the pressure on federal workers living in fear of a furlough notice landing on their desk," said National Federation of Federal Employees President William Dougan.

Dougan, who likened sequestration to "taking a hatchet to one area of the budget," said federal employees are seeking real solutions to the budget challenges.

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