I am writing to update you on the budget/ furlough discussions held in DC yesterday.
The three bargaining unit presidents for the Department spent all day on Thursday meeting with the Department concerning the impact of sequestration on bargaining unit employees. Sydney Rose led the discussion for the Department. Others brought into the discussion were Geoff Kenyon, Departmental Budget Director, Suzanne Schwartz-Simonetta who spoke about unemployment compensation and Kimberly proctor who has been designated to oversee sequestration/furloughs for the Department and Earsie Johnson from ODLRN.
The first thing we were told is that the Department has requested VERA (Volunteer Early Retirement) authority for all employees of the Department. They are waiting for approval from OPM (Office of Personnel Management). A request was not made to OPM and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) for VSIP (Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment). The department did calculations and found that VSIP would not decrease expenditures for the sequestration. Besides paying the incentive for separation, it also would have to cash out all annual leave and credit time for each employee who would use a VSIP. Those costs would go against the budget for this year. If sequestration continues into FY 14 the Department will revisit the VSIP option.
The Department has submitted all sequestration plans to OMB as required. OMB has not given permission to any federal agency to share their sequestration plans, but the Department anticipates getting approval for this with the next 7 to 10 days. The sequestration plans are now targeted for a 5% annual reduction for each budget line. This means if an agency has a single budget line it will have one plan. Agencies that have multiple budget lines will have a plan for each budget lines. That means each plan is likely to have a different number of furlough days in it. If an agency has multiple budget lines it is possible that employees in the different budget lines could have a different number of furlough days. In regard to contractors and grantees, OMB has given the Department the authority to deal with them to reduce costs due to sequestration.
The Department has presented multiple plans for any agency that qualifies for “reprogramming”. Under the law if OMB grants reprogramming the Department has more ability to shift money within an agency. OMB has to grant the reprogramming, it is not automatic. Every plan the Department submitted under reprogramming has less furlough days than the regular sequestration plan that accompanied it.
Executive employees, managers and supervisors are not exempt from being furloughed and would have the same number of furlough days as other employees in their organization. The only employees who can not be furloughed are those who are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate. Under the law there is also a separate process for the furlough of an Administrative Law Judge. These employees can be furloughed but the process must go thru the Merit System Protection Board.
Employees are required to have a 30 day notice before they can be furloughed. These notices can not be sent out unless the President signs a sequestration order. If Congress does not resolve the budget impasse, this order will be signed on March 1st.
The Department wants to begin bargaining on a Memorandum of Understanding as soon as possible. They realize the three unions will need to review the specific sequestration plans before bargaining. Due to the very short time frame to complete bargaining before any furloughs begin it is anticipated that the three bargaining units will do simultaneous bargaining as we did for the government shut down MOU in April 2011. A MOU could be bargained for Department wide issues (i.e., scheduling furlough days) and separate MOUs that are agency specific may be needed for issues such as impact on performance appraisals.
Suzanne Schwartz-Simonetta from ETA gave a very informative presentation on unemployment compensation. Basically there are 53 different laws regarding unemployment. Each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have their own laws for this. There is no unemployment compensation for employees in Guam or the Mariana Islands. Employees would have to file unemployment in the state where they work (duty station). The Department appears willing to let employees schedule their time off in a manner that would be most beneficial for unemployment compensation. Based on the discussion yesterday the Department appears willing to grant as much flexibility as possible on employees choosing their furlough days. Offices will not be able to close completely for an entire day since sequestration is to be done in a manner that least disrupts government service. Depending on the number of furlough days there may be some limits on scheduling furloughs days, such as half the office being gone on a particular day. This of course will be an issue to resolve in bargaining.
Others areas discussed at our meeting were sequestration/furlough communication, notices regarding EAP and recording furlough days in People Time.