Four Furlough Days at NOAA; Lawmaker Offers Budget Help

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees can expect up to four furlough days through September, acting NOAA administrator Kathy Sullivan said Monday.

The announcement came shortly after Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., on Friday wrote to acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank expressing concern over a surfeit of vacancies and a risk that sequestration may shortchange funding for the National Weather Service just as the summer storm season draws near.

In an email to employee unions obtained by Government Executive, Sullivan said NOAA had already begun discussing furlough implementation with representatives. “Our current proposal includes plans to close a majority of our offices entirely on four specific days as other agencies facing similar challenges have chosen to do,” she said. “The proposal is intended to extend federal holiday weekends, when possible, which provides additional utilities and other facility cost savings.“

She said the four days currently being proposed are July 5, July 19, Aug. 5 and Aug. 30.

Citing across-the-board budget cuts from sequestration, Sullivan said, a hiring freeze implemented March 27 was insufficient to make up for the lost funding. “For NOAA employees who are engaged in 24/7 operations, such as those who work in our Weather Forecast Offices, those working on shipboard platforms that are not at home port, law enforcement officers, and satellite operators, days will be carefully determined to ensure continuity of mission,” she said. “In the constrained budget environment in which we find ourselves, there are no easy or painless options available.”

Daniel Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said the furloughs, which will come “right at start of hurricane season, are obviously being done by an acting NOAA administrator who has no idea what the Weather Service does.” Sobien said the employees who will be furloughed and positions that have not been filled are critical. “The agency has determined them to be emergency essential employees,” he said. “In a hurricane, or in calamities of all kinds, these people are expected to go to work. Yet the agency doesn’t think enough of those people not to furlough them, especially when Congress is offering to reprogram funds.”

The mass exodus of leaders at key agencies inside the Commerce Department over the past year prompted Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, to point to vacancies in such top jobs as secretary, deputy secretary (when Blank leaves in May to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison), director of the Census Bureau, head of the Patent and Trademark Office and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“While I have confidence in the staff temporarily filling those positions, I urge you to prompt the White House to expeditiously appoint persons to these important positions,” the lawmaker wrote.

Wolf told Government Executive the impetus for the letter was the fact that Blank testified on the fiscal 2014 budget before his committee April 11 but “never covered any of the vacancy issues, never told us of any potential furloughs. There’s nobody there! I said you’d be better off making career people permanent, otherwise no decisions will be made because we may not have a Cabinet secretary confirmed by May, and there’s no one leading the government,” he said.

In watching the weather with big storms coming to the Gulf in Florida, Wolf added, “I said, ‘You’ve got to deal with this thing since it’s very tough for an acting career person to make decisions knowing that a political person will come in and second-guess it.’”

In an earlier letter in March, Wolf reminded Blank, he had assured her his committee would “consider on an expedited basis a reprogramming should the NWS need additional funds during fiscal 2013 as a result of the sequester.”

Wolf has not received a reply, and a NOAA spokesman, Dave Miller, on Monday said his agency would have no comment because it is still working on a “spend plan.”

A perusal of the personnel list at the Commerce Secretary’s office shows 11 vacancies and four officials with acting status at the levels of assistant secretary, office director level or higher. NOAA Administrator Janet Lubchenco left in February, Patent Office chief David Kappos left in November and NWS chief Jack Hayes resigned last May over legal violations in reprogramming funds.

Two years of budget cuts and a hiring slowdown may have already harmed the department’s weather forecasting, according to Sobien. “I’ve noticed that a lot of the forecasts lately have been pretty bad. They’ve been bringing in managers to fill in shifts who don’t know forecasting as well as experienced forecasters might,” he said. At NWS’ Fairbanks, Alaska, office, Sobien added, leave has been canceled and people are being forced into overtime. “On top of all that, before sequester they never told us whether it would affect forecasters or technicians. It will slow down the process. We’re in pretty dire straits.”

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