WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal employee labor unions are trying to soften the blow for more than 1 million government workers who may be forced to take unpaid time off if mandatory budget cuts kick in this week.
Union leaders have been working furiously to persuade agency managers to make other cuts that won't affect employee paychecks. But if agencies do insist on furloughs, unions say they can bargain over when they take place and other terms that could help workers in financial trouble.
"We plan to exercise those rights," said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents over 650,000 workers.
More than half of the nation's 2.1 million government workers may be required to take furloughs if automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, take effect and agencies are forced to trim budgets. Agencies also may impose hiring freezes, release temporary employees or decline to renew contract workers.
The Defense Department has said it expects to furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 days each, spread across more than five months, which would mean a 20 percent pay cut over that period. The Pentagon also plans to lay off as many as 46,000 temporary and contract employees.
Other federal agencies are likely to furlough several hundred thousand more workers, according to a memo last month from the Office of Management and Budget.
Unions can't stop furloughs, but they can ask to examine the agency's budget documents and make managers show there is no other way to make the cuts without furloughs.
"Our position is that the Department of Defense and every other agency actually has a lot more discretion than they're letting on and that furloughs are entirely unnecessary," Simon said. "There's certainly plenty of low-paid federal employees for whom a 20 percent pay cut means they will not be able to pay their bills."
Besides receiving no pay, a worker on furlough would not accumulate vacation time and would receive a smaller match for their government retirement account. The worker's annual salary also would be lower when calculating pension benefits.
"The impact is going to be devastating, not just on the employees who are serving unpaid furlough days, but on the American public, who depend on the services these employees provide," said Colleen Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 workers at 31 federal agencies.
Federal workers might be able to recoup lost earnings later, but it would be up to Congress to pass legislation authorizing the collection of missed pay. Some employees also may be allowed to draw unemployment benefits if they are furloughed long enough, but it varies depending on state law.
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