An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of furlough days at the Federal Aviation Administration. The story has been corrected.
Every U.S. Park Police officer will be off the job for 14 days — but the national parks they patrol will be staffed. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will shut down for seven days starting in May, after concluding that staggering furloughs for 9,000 employees would create too much paperwork.
Customs and Border Protection agents are waiting to hear whether the 14 unpaid days they were told to expect will disappear as they did for meat inspectors and federal prison staff. And the Pentagon announced Thursday that it would cut its planned furlough days from 22 to 14.
This is the uncertain and uneven landscape of the furloughs that in less than three weeks will begin to affect more than half of the nation’s 2 million federal employees.
The budget ax was supposed to fall across the board but hardly does so, federal workers are learning. And the situation is quickly splitting the workforce into haves and have-nots, inflaming labor-management tensions and straining agency resources as everyone struggles through the details.
Some agencies are benefiting from exceptions Congress carved out in its stopgap plan to keep the government going through Sept. 30. Lawmakers gave other agencies, including the Defense Department, authority to move money around. This allowed the Pentagon to offer a bit of relief to its 750,000 civilians.
Meanwhile, other employees wait to learn their fates as managers fine-tune plans or complete their bargaining with unions.
And late Thursday, as if to underscore the uncertainty, more than 100,000 Justice Department employees learned that they will have to wait until mid-April to find out whether they will be furloughed. They had been told in February to expect 14 unpaid days. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., noting that workers “may be anxious” about lost pay, said Thursday that he needed time to assess the stopgap budget. The Justice Department last Friday eliminated furloughs for more than 3,500 prison staffers.
“I think the only ones who might be happy about this are employees who have used their leave for family or personal reasons and need more time off,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the labor organizations negotiating with federal agencies.
The news out of the Pentagon on Thursday brings relief to civilian defense workers after weeks of anxiety. Nonetheless, it is a bitter pill.
“Do you want to know why we’re upset?” asked Betsey Brannen, who does children’s programming at the library at Fort Bragg, N.C. “We’ve supported our president through thick and thin. We watch the White House and Congress go back and forth on the budget. And then we are told to prepare for furloughs.”
Brannen, whose husband is an active-duty ordnance technician, makes $30,000 a year. Because of furloughs, the library is looking at closing one day a week, along with the day-care center on the base where her 3-year-old goes when her mother is at work.
“I understand that there’s a lot of wasted money [in the military] all around,” Brannen said. “But to throw this all on civilians is very frustrating.”
The reprieve quickly led to finger-pointing from unions and critics, who say any furloughs are unnecessary. Some services had considered eliminating them, but defense leaders concluded that the pain should be spread across the board, from rank-and-file to top managers.
Furloughs will be a lot more uneven at the Labor Department, which has mandated eight days off at the business operations center and offices of administrative law judges, two days at the solicitor’s office, five days at the Employment and Training Administration, six days at the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, and 10 days at the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.
There will be no furloughs for employees working in labor statistics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
This patchwork is largely because Labor has more than 20 sources of funding, including industry-paid fees and fines. The sequestration law does not allow managers to reassign money from one department to allow another to cancel its furlough days.
Besides offering some exceptions to the rigid sequester rules, Congress boosted the Agriculture Department’s food safety service treasury by $55 million, enough to eliminate furloughs for 10,000 meat inspectors. Their potential absence from assembly lines had prompted a sustained campaign by the meat lobby and Secretary Tom Vilsack to spare them on the grounds that a vital industry would be decimated.