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Sequestration hitting DC economy

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Home to many federal agencies and employees, the nation’s capital is feeling the brunt of sequestration, counting thousands of fewer government jobs this year and tens of millions of dollar likely to disappear from the local economy next year.

“We’re beginning to see some alarming trends,” D.C. Department of Employment Services Director Lisa Mallory said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen a big decrease in federal jobs.”

From January through July, government jobs decreased by 7,000. And city officials, who outlined their concerns in a press briefing last week, say that after cutting the unemployment rate from more than 10-percent two years ago to 8-4 percent in December 2012, the jobless rate inched up to 8.6-percent in July.

City budget director Eric Goulet said in an interview that another concern is that with contractors seeing cutbacks, office vacancy rates could pick up.

“The mayor will obviously try to minimize service impact as much as possible, but you can’t always,” he said.

Overall, city finance officials project sequestration could strip $60 million in revenue from the city’s economy in fiscal 2014.

EPA cancels Aug. 30 furlough day

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More than 17,000 Environmental Protection Agency employees will be spared a final furlough day that had been scheduled for Aug. 30, Administrator Gina McCarthy announced today. In a message to EPA staff, McCarthy attributed the decision to savings found elsewhere in the agency’s budget.

“The choices we made are difficult, but we continue to be flexible—applying good management decisions to ensure we continue to carry out our mission and reduce the impact of sequestration on each employee,” McCarthy said, according to a transcript provided by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many EPA staff.

In recent weeks, the Defense Department, IRS and Housing and Urban Development Department have also trimmed previously scheduled furlough days. The cancellation of the Aug. 30 day means that EPA employees will have taken about six days of unpaid time off, said John O’Grady, president of the AFGE’s Chicago local for the agency. While the cancellation is “wonderful” news, O’Grady said, he  questioned whether furloughs had been needed in the first place.

“We’ve been trying to tell them that all along,” O’Grady said. “Finally it seems that we had somebody who listened.”

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Attorneys for indigent federal defendants face pay cut

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A $15 hourly pay cut is coming for lawyers in private practice who represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases.

The looming cut, effective Sept. 1, will lower the hourly rate for so-called “panel attorneys” in most cases from $125 per hour to $110 per hour, said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. For lawyers working on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty, the change will take their hourly compensation from $178 to $163.

The reductions, signaled in a letter released today from William Traxler, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, are intended to spare federal defender organizations from having to resort to furloughs or reductions-in-force in fiscal 2014, said Redmond, who did not have a dollar figure on how much could be saved through lower fees. While the reductions are currently scheduled to stay in effect through September 2014, that may change “if we get sufficient funding,” she said.

Like other federal agencies, the court system could be subject to a fiscal 2014 continuing resolution that freezes its budget at this year’s  post-sequester level starting in October. In a letter to congressional leaders last week, 87 federal judges pleaded for funding above that threshold.

Also worried is the American Bar Association. “Current funding cuts due to sequestration are already threatening access to justice for so many,” ABA President James Silkenat said in a statement to FedLine. If those reductions continue, he added, the judicial conference will have to implement “dire cutbacks” across federal court operations that “among other things, will jeopardize the Sixth Amendment rights to effective counsel and a speedy trial for low-income defendants.”


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Volume of MSPB furlough appeals still soaring

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For anyone who’s keeping count, the total number of appeals filed with the Merit Systems Protection Board for fiscal 2013 (as of close of business yesterday) stood at 34,210, or close to five times the agency’s normal yearly caseload. Of those, around 29,000 (or 85 percent), are furlough-related, Board Clerk Bill Spencer said in an email.

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AP: Defense Department likely to cut number of furlough days

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The Defense Department could cut as many as five furlough days from the 11 currently planned by the end of the fiscal year in September, according to an Associated Press report. The report, which cites only anonymous sources, says that Pentagon officials are looking at trimming the total number of unpaid days off to somewhere between six and eight. Hold your breath, though–no announcement is planned this week, according to the AP.

At present, about 650,000 DoD civilian employees are generally losing one day per week to the furloughs that began early this month; as Defense News is reporting, the furloughs–imposed as part of the Pentagon’s strategy for dealing with sequester-related budget cuts–are turning even routine business into a hassle. Meanwhile, DoD employees are flooding the Merit Systems Protection Board with thousands of appeals.

While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said for months that department officials hope to trim the total number of furlough days, the AP story suggests that they may actually be preparing to do so.

Poll: More than half of Americans feeling little or no impact from sequester

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For hundreds of thousands of federal employees, there’s been no escaping the effects of sequester-related budget cuts, either on their jobs, their paychecks or both.

For the general public, though, not so much. In a national poll this month by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 55 percent of those surveyed said the cuts have had little or no impact on themselves and their families.

There is another way to look at the results. As NBC News’ story notes, the percentage of respondents who said they’ve felt “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of impact stood at 22 percent, up from 16 percent in April.

But with more than half of Americans still feeling essentially unscathed, the new poll suggests one reason why Congress isn’t hustling to avert a second sequester during the new fiscal year that starts in October. The telephone survey of 1,000 respondents was conducted from July 17 through July 21 and has a margin of error of 3.10 percent.

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MSPB rebuffs union call for advance ruling on DoD furloughs

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With the Defense Department set to lay out  a final furlough policy today,  the Merit Systems Protection Board has rejected a union’s request for a heads-up on  how it could decide appeals from employees who challenge the decision to force them to take unpaid time off.

“Under federal law, the Board is prohibited from issuing advisory opinions,” the agency’s clerk, William Spencer, said in a letter yesterday to Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers that cites the relevant provision of federal law.  This afternoon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to officially tell DoD employees that most will be furloughed for up to 11 days by the end of September because of sequester-related budget cuts.

On May 1, Junemann had asked the board to issue “a pre-emptive statement of opinion” on whether furloughed DoD workers could win appeals. Such a step would save the board “from deciding thousands of cases that would likely come,” Junemann said in the letter  MSPB chairman Susan Grundmann.

The board’s decision is “disappointing,” Matt Biggs, IFPTE’s legislative and policy director, in a phone interview today. By issuing the pre-emptive ruling, he said, board members “would have saved  themselves a lot of time and effort and work because there are going to be thousands of cases going through.”

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Union asks MSPB for pre-emptive ruling on DoD furloughs

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With the Defense Department expected to announce a final furlough policy as early as this week, a union has asked the Merit Systems Protection Board for a heads-up on how it would rule on behalf of DoD employees who appeal decisions to make them take unpaid time off.

Issuing “a pre-emptive statement of opinion” on whether those employees could win appeals would save the board “from deciding thousands of cases that would likely come,” Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said in last week’s letter to MSPB chairman Susan Grundmann. A board spokesman declined comment Friday, but said a response will be coming soon.

As of today, DoD officially plans to furlough most of its almost 800,000-strong civilian workforce for up to 14 days by the end of September. But in an April 26 letter to members of Congress, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated that the Pentagon is still searching for ways to trim or eliminate the number of furlough days. In a sign that something’s brewing, the Navy on Friday postponed sending furlough notices that were supposed to go out today.

In seeking an advance ruling, IFPTE is also hoping to prod Hagel into taking furloughs off the table altogether or else relax the department’s current policy requiring military services and other components to stick to the 14-day benchmark even if their finances allow for a lesser amount of unpaid time off. While that goal is a long-shot, the letter is a reminder that the board–as Federal Times has previously reported–could be swamped with appeals if mass furloughs do take place.

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Sequester-related layoffs hit Corporation for Public Broadcasting

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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the congressionally chartered non-profit that helps keep TV and radio programming like “Sesame Street,” “Downton Abbey” and “All Things Considered” on the air, has laid off a dozen employees and is requiring week-long furloughs for senior staff,  the web site, Current.org, is reporting.

The organization is also eliminating three vacant positions; all told, the downsizing cuts its workforce by 11 percent. The reductions are largely due to the sequester, according to what a spokesman told the site. Like most federal agencies, the corporation is having to absorb about a 5 percent budget cut. Between that and the continuing resolution approved in March, its funding was cut $23 million to around $422 million. The layoffs are the first since 1997-98.




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How is sequestration affecting you? Your agency? Your company?

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It’s now been more than a month-and-a-half since sequestration took effect and Federal Times remains committed to following the story as closely as we can.

We’re again looking for your help and want to hear from you about what the impact has been thus far. If you have something to share, please email Sean Reilly at sreilly@federaltimes.com or Steve Losey at slosey@federaltimes.com.

Thanks very much!