LM Otero/AP file photo

Customs and Border Protection Sends Thousands of Furlough Notices

Full-time employees will have no more than 14 days of unpaid leave, starting April 21.

This story has been updated. 

Across-the-board budget cuts from sequestration forced Customs and Border Protection on Thursday to begin officially releasing furlough notices to thousands of employees.

The notice -- obtained by Government Executive -- says that furloughs for CBP employees will begin on April 21, and will continue through the end of fiscal 2013 on Sept. 30.  Full time employees will be furloughed no more than 14 workdays, and part-time employees will have their furlough time pro-rated. Furloughs will be “discontinuous” -- that is spread out over several pay periods, according to the notice.

A spokeswoman for CBP told Government Executive that all 60,000 employees are to receive furlough notices, and other measures including hiring freezes and reductions to overtime are to be implemented to help achieve the $754 million in mandated cuts this fiscal year.

“CBP will continue to make every effort to minimize the sequester’s impact on public safety and national security,” the spokeswoman said.

Union representatives were outraged by this development. National Border Patrol Council Vice President Shawn Moran told Government Executive that many Border Patrol agents began receiving their notices during their midnight shift. NBPC issued guidance Thursday for its members. One major area of contention was CBP's cancellation of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime pay for Border Patrol agents who work beyond their basic eight-hour shift. A representative for a local NBPC chapter told Government Executive that it would especially hurt agents who have two hour drives to remote duty stations, and said that it amounted to a 40 percent pay cut for many agents. 

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said that furloughs would take “a heavy toll” on international trade and travel. In a statement released Thursday, she said that 24,000 employees represented by NTEU were going to be furloughed because of the budget cuts. Kelley said that this had already begun creating delays in customs lines at major airports. One story in the Orlando Business Journal said that fewer overtime staff at the city’s international airport had already brought additional wait times and lines for thousands of passengers.

“There is no escaping the reality that sequestration is having serious effects on the traveling public and on vital commerce,” Kelley said in a statement. “These impacts will only get worse the longer sequestration continues, especially as the busy summer travel season approaches.”

Sen. Tom Carper D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that sequestration related furloughs would “hinder our efforts to recruit and retain the best and brightest.” In a statement made to Government Executive, he said that CBP, like any agency, had to comply with the cuts demanded by sequestration.  However, he said that citizens would end up suffering “the negative consequences.”

“The bottom line is that our nation needs to get away from stop-and-go government, from crisis governing, from constant fiscal cliffs,” Carper said.  “We need a comprehensive plan that addresses our federal debt and deficit for the long-haul.”

American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. denounced the possibility of furloughs in a statement released on March 5. He said that Border Patrol agents do not operate on a traditional “nine-to-five” schedule, and many work extra hours to stop drug smugglers and other criminals.

“But with the sequester policy DHS has fashioned for Border Patrol, agents will be instructed to stop working at the moment their straight shift ends,” Cox said. “Good news for criminals and others who would enter our country illegally, but very bad news for Americans who rely on the courage and devotion of Border Patrol agents who risk their lives every day to keep drugs and guns and gangs outside our borders.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of unpaid furloughs in a letter sent to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in February, but told reporters during a White House press briefing that she would maintain security as an utmost priority.

Many in CBP are keeping their heads up through the budget uncertainty. Michael Fisher, the chief of the U.S Border Patrol, told staff on Thursday that the service had seen many challenges, but had managed to find ways to overcome them.

"In every instance, we have risen to the challenge and accomplished the mission -- especially during the most difficult circumstances," Fisher said.