FAA employees could return to work next week

Furloughed employees at the Federal Aviation Administration could be back on the job as early as next week, if the Senate approves legislation Friday that funds the agency and ends a two-week partial shutdown.

Lawmakers reached a deal Thursday afternoon to end the impasse over FAA funding and put thousands of furloughed employees back to work. The Senate on Friday is expected to pass the House-approved bill funding the agency through Sept. 16, and the administration may waive a contentious provision it includes. While Congress is on official recess, legislative rules allow lawmakers to pass the bill during a pro forma session, avoiding an impasse that could have extended into September.

"If it is passed tomorrow, folks should be back working next week," Matt Biggs, assistant to the president and legislative and political director at the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said in an email. "The money is already there -- all that has been needed is the congressional authorization to spend it."

Essential employees who have remained on the job will receive retroactive pay for the time they worked during the partial shutdown once Congress approves funding. But Congress has to separately authorize retroactive pay for furloughed employees -- an uncertainty given the political and fiscal climate.

"This is a tremendous victory for American workers everywhere," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "From construction workers to our FAA employees, they will have the security of knowing they are going to go back to work and get a paycheck."

The 40 airport safety inspectors who have been on the job during the furlough and have been paying travel and work-related expenses out of their own pockets also will be reimbursed when Congress passes a funding extension. These inspectors would have been furloughed, but were deemed excepted because of their safety responsibilities. According to FAA, these employees are using their own credit cards to cover costs related to flying or driving to inspection sites around the country and they are not receiving their paychecks.

The standoff began as a dispute between House Republicans and the Democrats over rural airport subsidies, but it has since grown into a broader blame game about who is responsible for failing to reauthorize funding for FAA over the long term. The House-approved bill eliminates subsidies for airline service to airports located less than 90 miles from a medium or large hub, which has upset some lawmakers from rural areas. The two chambers also have been at odds over a labor provision in the House version that would overturn a National Mediation Board decision that would make it easier for rail and aviation workers to unionize.

The details of the bipartisan agreement remain unknown. The House-approved bill contains a provision that would allow the Transportation secretary to waive the provision related to the subsidies if he "determines that the geographic characteristics of the location result in undue difficulty in accessing the nearest medium or large hub airport." Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, noted this provision during a press conference Thursday in which he argued that the Obama administration had the tools at its disposal to resolve the crisis.

Unions that advocate on behalf of FAA employees praised the deal. "We're pleased that a deal was reached so these hard-working employees can return to work," said Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. "It's time now for Congress to get serious about passing FAA reauthorization that meets everyone's needs so we don't have a repeat of this terrible fiasco."

Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, applauded Reid for his leadership. "In these difficult economic times, it is jobs and not political gamesmanship that Americans truly value," he said.

During the past two weeks, top officials, including LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, have implored lawmakers to resolve their differences and pass legislation that would end the impasse and put employees back to work. President Obama also appealed publicly to Congress to reach a deal and send federal employees back to work as soon as possible.

"This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Thursday. "But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that."

The dispute has cost the U.S. government an estimated $200 million a week in uncollected airline taxes and put the agency in a partial shutdown with 4,000 employees furloughed -- 1,000 of them in the greater Washington-metro area.

FAA was contacted for this article but did not immediately respond.

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