Shutdowns avoided-- so far
The nation's meat and poultry plants could have been shut down Monday if government furloughs had gone into effect. But because the Bush administration and congressional leaders agreed on a budget, automatic cuts in federal spending as mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law didn't take effect.
Some government agencies posted their layoff plans in the Federal Register, the daily Bible of federal regulations, although they weren't required to. The furloughs would have hit hardest the most labor-intensive agencies, including the Food and Inspection Service Division of the Department of Agriculture.
The division has about 9,000 employees, more than four-fifths of whom are directly involved in inspecting meat and poultry plants.
About 88 percent of the division's funding goes to salaries and benefits. Like other government agencies, the inspection service was looking at a spending cut of about one-third.
The division told its employees they would be laid off two days a week during the first two weeks of October -- the maximum of 32 hours. To fulfill the inspectors' mission for as long as possible, Lester M. Crawford, the division's administrator, decreed that his employees would work full-time for as long as possible during the period -- that is, report for the first six days and take off the last four.
If furloughs had come those last four days, the nation's meat and poultry plants would have shut down since federal inspection is required.
"Under those laws, all establishments subject to inspection must have inspectors on duty . . . to inspect and pass the product being produced, or cease operations," the division said in the Register notice.
America's ports also could have been shut down due to furloughs. Under automatic spending cuts, the U.S. Customs Service would have had to cut about one-third of its expenditures.
Customs said that depending on how long the spending cuts were in force, it would have had to reduce hours of service and possibly close some ports of entry.
As was the case with countless agencies that altogether employ more than a million people, the food inspection division and Customs gladly pulled back their furlough plans when the budget agreement was reached Sunday.
Now, federal employees face the prospect of furloughs Oct. 9 if Congress doesn't produce a budget resolution by Friday as specified in the budget agreement.
All this planning for the worst can be wearing on employees. An administrator at the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that more time was spent by supervisors planning for the furloughs than would have been spent away from work had the furloughs actually occurred.
Last minute litigating:
After sponsoring a series of demonstrations protesting furloughs, the nation's largest federal employee union late last week went to court.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 employees, filed suit in federal court in Washington contending that the furloughs ordered by the Social Security Administration were illegal.
More than 60,000 employees would have been affected.
The deficit reduction act applies only to general Treasury funds, AFGE attorneys contended in the suit. Further, the union said, the deficit act exempts from cuts the trust fund of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Program.
Because SSA employees are paid from the trust fund and not from Treasury money, the union argued in its suit that SSA had no authority to furlough workers. Previously, it had been commonly accepted that while Social Security benefits were protected from automatic cuts, salaries of the workers who dispensed the checks were not.
Special pay advanced:
The House this week approved a Senate bill to continue for three years a 12-year-old program that allows federal agencies to supplement the salaries of government physicians to bolster retention and recruitment efforts.
Under the program, federal doctors with two years or less government service can get up to $14,000 more in salary. Physicians with more than two years of experience can get up to $20,000.
Since the Senate has already acted on it, it would become law with the president's signature.
Agencies that rely on physicians, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration, have reported lower turnover rates since the program started.
While traditionally sympathetic lawmakers who introduced the legislation praised the "pay comparability" concept, they lamented the lack of a government-wide solution for making federal pay comparable to private-sector salaries. Government surveys have concluded that in cases where comparisons of similar jobs could be made, government employees were an average 30 percent behind their counterparts in the private sector.
Following up on its stated policy, the Office of Personnel Management has issued a rule, subject to comment and reconsideration, that would waive the health insurance premiums of federal employees who are reservists and are sent off to Operation Desert Shield. In that situation, their employment status is that they are on leave without pay.
The reservists' health insurance would be preserved for up tone year under the OPM rule.