Last hired, first fired: Where are you in line?

Friday - 9/7/2012, 2:00am EDT

So if Uncle Sam really goes over the dreaded fiscal cliff in January, do you have a parachute?

This — maybe like your last blind date — could get ugly!

Groups representing federal workers and federal contractors are often at odds, and agree on very few things. But when they toss the S-word around, they are on the same gloom-and-doom page. And while they get paid to worry and fix things or head off trouble, real or manufactured, this time they may be correct.

Sequestration is coming. Few if any of us have seen it before, but just about everybody agrees it would not be a good thing. For the nation, the economy and you. And me.

In simple terms, sequestration would mandate something like $109 billion in cuts starting early next year. Experts — some credentialed, some just guessing — say it would result in an 11 percent across-the-board cut in federal agencies. That could, by some estimates, mean a reduction in 108,000 Defense Department civilians jobs and a total of 270,000 governmentwide (excluding the already downsizing postal service).

Many of the nonfederal job cuts over the past four years have been in state and local governments. Some hard-hit cities and states have changed future benefits and reduced current payouts. In most cities and states governors, mayors and local elected officials decided where the job cuts were made. In the federal government, that won't be the case.

Officials (anxious to stress the worst-case scenario) point out that under civil service rules the last-hired are the first fired. The Clinton administration faced a similar scenario when the President decided to eliminate about 270,000 federal jobs. Because it didn't want to wipe out its diversity- hiring gains (women and minorities) it came up with the buyout program which was aimed at luring otherwise fireproof male veterans to leave for a $25,000 payment. That was a lot more money back in the 1990s when a gallon of gas cost a lot less than a pack of cigarettes.

At today's prices, that 1990s-era buyout payment (which shrinks dramatically after deductions) doesn't have the same buying power. Dozens of agencies are offering buyouts, but in many cases fewer than half those offered buyouts are taking them. The exception is people who otherwise had planned to retire this year for whom the buyouts were a pleasant surprise.

The Obama administration has dropped a few horrible hints as to what might happen to public services — from weather forecasting to national parks — if sequestration took place. But, for the most part, it has told agencies to cool it with any panic talk. But that could change overnight.

Congress — some of whose members would love to see the government shut down and go away — passed the Sequestration Transparency Act that required federal agencies, by yesterday, to publish their over-the-cliff plans and forecast.

The situation should become clearer (it could hardly get more murky or mysterious) over the next few weeks. But lots of people who watch the government for a living say the options and solution (if one is reached) won't be clear until well after the election.

Check out the Buyout Guide.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Hard, spherical candies can take nearly a half hour to fully dissolve, according to a new study, "Sticky physics of joy: On the dissolution of spherical candies," published in the journal Physics Education. Researchers placed the candies in a dish of "slightly agitated tap water," which approximates the pH level of human saliva, according to NPR's food blog, The Salt. The candies dissolved entirely after about 25 minutes.


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