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Some Federal Workers See Silver Lining in Spring Furloughs

Some view unpaid leave as a chance to travel and have a vacation free of disruptions.

Spring is near, temperatures are warming, and the Nationals are preparing to defend their National League East crown, raising the question: Is there ever a good time to get furloughed?

With sequestration set to take effect on Friday, hundreds of thousands of federal employees may soon be facing unpaid days off. While most are no doubt dreading news of a furlough, there are apparently some who see a silver lining.

One reason is that Congress has sometimes granted furloughed federal employees back pay for the wages they missed. There is no guarantee that will happen this time. But after the 21-day shutdown from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, more than $44 million was approved by Congress and the president to retroactively pay the 284,000 impacted employees, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Another reason is that agencies have to cap the furloughs at 22 days because unpaid leave beyond that becomes a layoff. And while nothing in the law requires federal agencies to schedule 22 days of furlough consecutively, there is also nothing in law that prohibits it.

“Bring it on! I’ve requested the consecutive 22 days so I can draw unemployment and travel,” wrote one federal employee on the U.S. Air Force Web site earlier this week.

“I couldn’t care less,” wrote another on a blog. “Let it happen.... A vacation through a furlough is the best kind possible since I would be legally prohibited from doing anything in an official capacity including checking e-mails. I haven’t had such an enjoyable vacation since the advent of cell phones and the Internet.”

These are exceptions, of course. One federal worker, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said that far from viewing unpaid leave as a good thing, he and his colleagues are “worried also about what is going to happen to jobs in our office longer term.”

Moreover, most agencies are expected to spread out the unpaid, off-duty furlough days—not permit them to run consecutively—to minimize the impact on services.

But Joseph Kaplan, a lawyer whose firm represents federal employees worldwide, says that federal workers should know that they have clearly defined legal rights. For instance, none of the furloughs can begin on Friday. Employees must be given 30 days of advance written notice of a furlough by an agency, and then there must be seven calendar days for an employee to respond orally or in writing, have a lawyer or someone else represent them, and perhaps even appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

That means the earliest the sequester-related furloughs could start is in April.

But there are few grounds on which to challenge furloughs, unless proper notice was not given or some other violation of due process occurred.

Kaplan makes another point: “It does take an act of Congress to get the lost pay.”

Asked about the likelihood that Congress would give federal workers their missed pay for furlough days retroactively this time around, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not directly respond to the question.

“Hopefully, President Obama will work with us to stop his sequester and replace it with smarter, common-sense spending cuts—so that will be a moot point,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Democrat whose Maryland district includes 62,000 federal workers, said, “Right now, Mr. Hoyer remains focused on replacing sequestration with a balanced solution to prevent the possibility of furloughs for federal employees.”

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