The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 8, 2013

Furlough plans vary widely at gov't agencies

— WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal workers could face seven days of furloughs at the Housing and Urban Development Department, but Homeland Security personnel might see twice that number. At the Environmental Protection Agency, workers would get four-day holiday weekends with a catch — one day would be a furlough day.

Other agencies are avoiding furloughs altogether.

Government agencies vary widely in how they are dealing with $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect last week, according to labor unions that represent federal workers.

"It just depends on their flexibility," said Patrick Lester, director of fiscal policy for the Center for Effective Government. "If they are largely personnel-driven, there's no way to avoid personnel-related cuts."

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 600,000 federal workers, is trying to keep track of all the different plans, as their members face the prospect of lost wages and growing frustration about getting their work done. More than half of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers could be furloughed over the next six months.

"A lot of people think federal employees are fat-cat bureaucrats in Washington, but they don't realize more than 85 percent of these workers live outside of D.C.," AFGE spokesman Tim Kauffman said. "A lot of them are not highly paid folks, like VA nurses and emergency response workers."

Meat and poultry inspectors at the Agriculture Department initially were told they might be furloughed for 11 consecutive days between June and July, possibly leading to a meat supply shortage and higher prices. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack backed away from that at a House hearing this week, telling lawmakers that the furloughs would not be consecutive after all.

"Furloughs are going to cause disruption," USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said Wednesday. "We're looking to do it in ways that cause the minimum impact."

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