Federal workers irked by lost pay, insult of furloughs
By Bill Lambrecht | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: March 11, 2013
WASHINGTON — The Defense Contract Audit Agency, an obscure federal entity in Hazelwood, Mo., helped save taxpayers $4.2 billion last year by putting sharp pencils to Pentagon contracts.
Nonetheless, auditors have been told to expect furloughs next month, a directive that is not going over well.
“To send us home when you’ve got a budget crisis, you’re not really thinking with your brain,” said Gary Rennard, an auditor with the agency for 30 years and a local leader in his American Federation of Government Employees.
Details are still in flux as to how $85 billion in forced sequester will be apportioned in coming months, but one constant remains: furloughs for federal employees.
The Greater St. Louis Federal Executive Board counts 37,000 federal workers at 88 offices in eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. Civilian defense workers could be hit the hardest: Among the region’s top employers are Scott Air Force Base, with 13,000 people, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, with about 5,000.
The Veterans Affairs Department, another big employer, is largely exempt from the cuts. The Social Security Administration told employees in a memo Thursday that it hoped to make other cuts “and that the possibility of furloughs remains uncertain at this time.”
A week into the sequester, many agencies have yet to spell out how long furloughs will last and when they’ll be imposed.
For instance, Housing and Urban Development employees were told to expect up to seven days of furloughs, a local employee said. The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested four furlough days before June 1 and as many 13 through September. A formal notice from the Justice Department said up to 14 days of furloughs could begin next month.
At Scott Air Force Base, some 4,500 civilian defense worker are looking at 22 days over a period of six months starting in mid-April — in effect a 20 percent pay cut.
Federal employees interviewed at a half-dozen federal agencies say lingering uncertainty is compounding a sense of being singled out. Some workers also say they’re weary of being cast as coddled and overpaid.
“There’s this whole mentality that comes across that we deserve this, we brought this on,” said Sandra Halama, a top-level manager at Scott.
“We’re definitely not slackers. I’ve listened to so much of that for 32 years that a lot of times, I don’t even want to tell people what I do.”
The haggling continues over who will get sent home. In the ongoing budget warfare, the administration of President Barack Obama is painting a picture of massive disruptions with air traffic controllers absent, a shortage of airport luggage inspectors and some 60,000 border agents off the job at one time or another.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt is among Republicans arguing that agencies have the authority to minimize impacts of furloughs. He said Thursday he will introduce legislation that expands the pool of “essential” employees who must remain on the job, among them Agriculture Department inspectors required to be present at meat processing in plants in Missouri.
“It would be outrageous to me if, because one federal employee is furloughed, that hundreds of workers can’t work that day,” he told reporters, adding that he is preparing for “a major fight.”
As it stands, workers say the penalty they’re paying goes beyond lost wages. Federal employees on “nonpay status” lose days that accumulate for vacation and sick leave. Credit problems that might result could jeopardize security clearances; indebtedness is among factors weighed in getting and keeping clearances.
Senior managers say older, higher-paid employees probably won’t have great difficulty absorbing the furloughs. But it’s a different story for younger federal workers in families supported by one paycheck — such as Charles Spencer, an accountant at the Farm Service Agency in St. Louis.
Spencer, 29, handles loan applications and other services for farmers. He has three young children and a wife dealing with a recently diagnosed medical condition. He is expecting at least a week without pay, which would take a bite out of his $50,000 annual salary.
“We’re definitely going to take a hit, and who knows if they’re going to continue it,” he said. “It’s become popular in some circles to single out federal employees, but it doesn’t seem fair considering everything else going on in government.”
Federal agencies may have other options to reach sequester reductions, among them reducing or ending outside contracts. The Defense Department alone spends $375 billion annually on contracts, more than half for services, the Government Accountability Office reported last year.
Waste from contracting is among arguments that the American Federation of Government Employees intends to raise at a rally in St. Louis on March 20 at a location not yet selected. The union represents about 10,000 employees in the St. Louis area and some 600,000 nationwide.
Steve Hollis, a local union president and a 31-year information technology specialist at the local Farm Services Agency, argues that outside computer services cost his office three times what the government would pay for one federal worker to do the job.
Scott Air Force Base intends to hold town hall meetings in coming days to offer more furlough details. The Air Force is offering credit counseling and other services for workers worried about finances.
Defense workers have been told they will have one day weekly of unpaid leaves of absence for 22 weeks starting with the April 22 pay period. Working at home or working on a volunteer basis is forbidden.
Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, read a letter on the House floor recently about a young couple at Scott who had been deployed in the Illinois National Guard’s Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The woman is among those who would be furloughed, and her husband expects to lose his job because of the cuts.
“I cannot believe Congress is going to let this train wreck happen,” Enyart said.
As chief of Scott’s contract airlift division, Sandra Halama arranges to move troops and military cargo around the world. She’s trying to figure out how that work will get done with her and her employees on four-day work weeks.
Halama, 54, has a son and a daughter in college. She might car pool to save at the edges. She’s more worried, she said, about younger workers and about long-term effects at the base.
“Stability is what brings us to these jobs. If these furloughs and this kind of and treatment continues, there is no longer that stability. Who’s going to want to take these jobs in the future?” she asked.
“The other thing I’m thinking about is that a year from now, they’ll be thinking, ‘We did it one time, let’s do it again’.”