Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Bill Aims to Give Agencies Furlough Flexibility

Legislation would exempt 'essential employees' from unpaid leave by following government shutdown guidance.

Senate legislation introduced Monday would allow federal agencies to decide which employees should stay on the job during sequestration.

The bill would exempt “essential employees” from furlough during sequestration, using the same language to differentiate essential and nonessential employees as during a government shutdown. An essential employee is one who “performs work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, as determined by the head of the agency,” according to government shutdown guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.

The legislation also would provide agency heads with the authority to shift funds in their budgets to avoid furloughing essential employees during sequestration. Agencies must seek congressional approval for such reprogramming requests.

OPM distinguishes administrative furloughs from shutdown furloughs, the latter resulting from a lapse in congressionally-appropriated funding. Administrative furloughs, which agencies are dealing with now as a result of the sequester, are “a planned event by an agency which is designed to absorb reductions necessitated by downsizing, reduced funding, lack of work, or any other budget situation other than a lapse in appropriations,” stated OPM’s April guidance on administrative furloughs.

Many agencies have said they lack flexibility to determine which employees to furlough. The Agriculture Department, for instance, said it would have to furlough food inspectors because of sequestration. That prompted Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., to add funds last month to the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution to ensure no meat inspectors would be furloughed. Advocates for other civilian employees, including those in air traffic control, are looking for similar exemptions.

Blunt is sponsoring the bill introduced Monday, dubbed the 2013 Essential Services Act. He unsuccessfully tried to add it as an amendment to the CR, which keeps the government running through Sept. 30. “This bill will help ensure the Obama administration spends taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars in a way that prioritizes our nation’s economy, protects private-sector jobs, and defends our national security,” Blunt said.

But agencies already might have some flexibility when determining administrative furloughs. “Agencies are responsible for identifying the employees affected by administrative furloughs based on budget conditions, funding sources, mission priorities (including the need to perform emergency work involving the safety of human life or protection of property), and other mission-related factors,” OPM’s April guidance stated.

Whether agencies truly are able to tap that flexibility right now is another story.