NWS could furlough 5,000 employees to cover budget shortfall

Friday - 6/8/2012, 9:45am EDT

The National Weather Service said it will have to furlough as many as 5,000 employees for 13 days — unless Congress allows the agency to move around funds within its budget.

NWS, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, faces a $35.5 million budget shortfall in funds for field operations, according to the union representing NWS employees.

The furloughs would save the agency $26 million and occur before this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"National Weather Service employees are paying for the mistakes of the agency's leadership," said Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Union, in a statement. "Their misguided plan to furlough all agency employees is another example of the short- sighted thinking that has put them in such dire straits."

NWS submitted a "reprogramming" package to Congress that would begin July 1. This plan would allow the agency to maintain its current operations without furloughs by reappropriating funds from one department budget to another.

A NOAA spokesman told The Washington Post that the reappropriated funds would pay for technology upgrades and local forecasting.

Last month, an internal investigation found agency employees had moved millions of dollars between NWS programs without notifying employees. NWS head Jack Hayes abruptly retired, although there was no evidence of fraud.

A union official says the shortfall was due to the Office of Management of Budget requesting a 2 percent increase in NWS operating costs from year-to-year over the last decade. Except for recent years, pay for federal employees has increased more than the budgeted increase, creating a "structural gap," said NWSEU general counsel Richard Hirn, in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose.

Payroll makes up a large part of NWS operations, about $2 million per day.

"There was this growing gap, and you had to pay the salaries or you had to close offices because they're so thinly staffed," Hirn said. He said the 122 forecast offices nationwide have about two people on a shift at any given time, fine for normal day-to-day operations but not sufficient when severe weather hits.

Hirn said it appears the agency chief financial officer and Hayes became "fall guys because the political people did not ask from Congress for sufficient funds to cover really basic operational expenses of the National Weather Service."

Without congressional approval, one possible scenario is NWS employees would have to take 2-3 unpaid furlough days per pay period, according to the union.

NWS must give employees a 30-day notice if it is to furlough staff, unless the agency can prove the situation was an emergency.

"Furloughs would reduce staff available and would potentially impact critical weather operations, including those at the the National Hurricane Center and Storm Prediction Center, during the peak hurricane season," according to the union.