Federal workers uneasy over potential layoffs
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WASHINGTON -- Federal employees have been skeptical for months that the biggest cuts to government spending in history could really happen. But with the "fiscal cliff" just days away, workers are now growing increasingly alarmed that their jobs and their missions could be on the line.
A deal between President Barack Obama and Congress is needed to avoid $110 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts, which would hamstring operations ranging from weather forecasting and air traffic control to the purchase of spare parts for weapons systems. So civil servants are bracing for the blow, wondering whether their work will be upended -- and whether they may be forced to take unpaid days off.
Many federal workers have become jaded after a two-year pay freeze and congressional fights over spending that keep agencies lurching from one stopgap budget to another. Until recently, few employees thought it could come to this: Budget cuts of 8 percent to 10 percent divided equally between military and domestic agencies. Only a few programs, like Social Security, veterans benefits and some services for the poor, are exempted.
"Sure, we continue to do our jobs," said Carl Eichenwald, who works in enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency. "But all of this uncertainty is disruptive for our mission. A lot of time gets spent spinning wheels. We won't know whether we can do inspections. Do we have 100 percent of our budget, or 85 percent?"
As the year-end deadline approaches, federal employees have been told very little by their bosses about how their agencies are preparing to carry out huge spending reductions.
"It seemed like we were almost immune to thinking that something real was going to come of it," Fernando Cutz, an analyst for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Then came an emailed memo two weeks ago from agency heads to employees. The cuts would be "significant and harmful to our collective mission." Furloughs "or other personnel actions" -- layoffs -- remain a real possibility.
Comptroller General Eugene Dodaro, in a lengthy video message, for instance, told employees of the Government Accountability Office that the agency would absorb a $42 million cut this year through a hiring freeze, slashed bonuses, eliminated technology projects and restricted travel. But those cuts "will not get us all the way there," he said, and he did not mince words. "Some number of agency-wide furlough days" would be necessary.
The memos were also meant to make clear that the government would be open for business the day after New Year's even if Mr. Obama and Congress fail to reach a deal to avoid the spending cuts.
"We wanted to make sure there was no confusion before people left for the holidays that they should come back to work," said Charles Young, GAO spokesman.
First Published December 30, 2012 12:00 am