The Furloughs That Never Came

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said furloughs would be unnecessary at his department, after threatening them in February. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said furloughs would be unnecessary at his department, after threatening them in February. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

As recently as February, just weeks before sequestration was set to go into effect, nearly every Cabinet-level department had issued warnings of the need to furlough employees in fiscal 2013 due to the across-the-board cuts.  

With the fiscal year more than halfway over, however, the number of agencies and department that will in fact require furloughs has dropped dramatically. While some departments, such as Labor and Treasury, have already begun or are moving forward with plans to furlough, the Agriculture, Education, Homeland Security, Justice and Transportation departments have reversed course.

In cancelling the unpaid leave, agencies have cited a variety of factors, from congressionally approved reprogramming of funds to simply finding the requisite savings elsewhere.

Sequestration was expected to force the Education Department to furlough “many employees” for “multiple days,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee in February. “This would significantly harm the department’s other activities, including making grant awards on a timely basis.”

Duncan recently sent a memo to all Education employees, however, announcing furloughs were no longer necessary this fiscal year, thanks to a reduction in hiring. Forty-three percent of the vacancies at Education have gone unfilled in the last two years, according to the department. It has also reduced its contracts by eliminating or postponing certain tasks. It has and continues to reduce travel and large conference spending, slashing 15 percent and 10 percent of their budgets, respectively.

Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Department secretary, said in February, “Should sequester occur, we would likely need to implement furloughs impacting about a third of our workforce, as well as other actions. These furloughs and other actions would severely disrupt our ability to provide the broad range of public services we administer.”

Lawmakers were particularly concerned about the Food Safety and Inspection Service, where furloughs would have meant the closure of meat processing plants due to the lack of inspections required by law. Those furloughs were avoided through congressional action, with additional funding provided to the agency in a new spending bill.

The rest of Agriculture, meanwhile, will avoid furloughs by finding other places to take cuts. The Farm Service Agency, for example, one of Agriculture’s last entities considering forcing unpaid leave, said it would use a hiring freeze, cuts to discretionary operating and contract expenses and a transfer of unused funds from a conservation program to cover salaries and cancel furloughs, according to an Agriculture spokeswoman.

The Justice Department also promised furloughs only to later backtrack, even going as far as to issue furlough notices to employees.

“Unfortunately,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in February, “the department cannot achieve the cuts required by sequestration without furloughing staff this fiscal year.”

Just two months later, Holder issued a departmentwide memo announcing a 180-degree shift.

“After careful review of our current financial situation and the additional funding we received in the final FY 2013 bill, combined with aggressive steps to freeze hiring and cut contracting and other costs, I am able to announce that the department will not need to furlough any employees this fiscal year due to sequestration,” Holder said.

At Homeland Security and Transportation, Congress has intervened to ensure furloughs are not necessary at key agencies.

After several days with some employee furloughs, Congress passed a bill that allowed the Federal Aviation Administration to shift funds and cancel the unpaid days off. Lawmakers added funds to Customs and Border Protection to postpone -- and likely completely cancel -- furloughs at the agency. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano had previously told Congress “a significant portion” of the department’s staff would face up to 14 furlough days of unpaid leave.

In addition to CBP, the Transportation Security Administration also defied earlier predictions by announcing it would not need furloughs this fiscal year.

The Defense Department used reprogramming and the new spending bill to reduce original projections of 22 civilian furloughs days down to 11.

With this year’s furlough situations -- or lack thereof -- having largely taken shape across government, attention has turned to fiscal 2014, including more promises of unpaid leave. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would not rule out furloughs next year, while FBI Director Robert Mueller recently assured Congress they would be necessary

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