Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

Furloughs Could Endanger Feds’ Security Clearances

Senator asks OPM to protect employees who risk losing their jobs because sequestration forces them into debt.

A top Republican senator is concerned that furloughs resulting from the sequester could endanger some federal employees’ security clearances.

Susan Collins of Maine has asked the agency that handles the government security clearance process not to rescind employees’ credentials because of financial problems stemming solely from being furloughed. “I understand the reason a security clearance could be revoked for an employee who is in financial trouble because of decisions he or she made,” Collins wrote in a March 19 letter to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry. “In these unusual circumstances, however, employees may have financial difficulties due to the unexpected impact of sequestration.”

The government can revoke the security clearances of federal employees who fall into financial debt, which in turn can cost them their jobs since some positions require those credentials. Many agencies have said they will have to furlough workers to comply with the mandatory spending cuts under sequestration, meaning affected employees will receive smaller paychecks during the next six months.

Obama administration officials have said furloughs could decrease some employees’ pay by as much as 20 percent through the end of fiscal 2013. As a result, some federal employees will have trouble keeping up with expenses and could miss monthly car or mortgage payments, for example.

Those missed payments now could have a negative effect five or six years hence when an employee’s current security clearance comes up for review, said Mark Nelson, the union representative for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 4 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Nelson, who has had a security clearance since 1981, says he takes the process very seriously and does not expect the Pentagon or OPM to cut corners when granting employees access to such jobs. But the government needs to figure out how to differentiate between those employees who have racked up debt because they gambled away their money, for instance, and those who fell behind because of being furloughed, he said.

“We are just trying to think ahead of the furloughs if they do hit us,” Nelson said. “There will be people who miss house payments, car payments.” Most of the jobs at the four naval shipyards in that area require security clearances, he added.

Collins represents more than 16,000 federal employees in Maine, and 4,700 of them work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard near the New Hampshire border. “We are not unique,” Nelson said. “This is going to affect every federal employee who has a security clearance,” and is furloughed, he said.

The Pentagon has said it probably will have to furlough most of its civilian employees for up to 22 days through Sept. 30 to cut spending under the sequester, although officials now are studying the flexibilities under the continuing resolution President Obama signed Tuesday to see if they can scale back furloughs. The department last week said it won’t start sending furlough notices until the first week in April, so furloughs would not begin until about May 6. Agencies must notify employees 30 days in advance of a furlough.

OPM did not immediately respond for comment on Collins’ letter. “In a perfect world, OPM should already be working with all government agencies on putting in place security clearance policies as a result of furloughs, but I have not heard anything from OPM that suggests that this is happening,” said Matt Biggs, IFPTE’s legislative and political director, in an email. “They are stretched thin like every other agency, so I’m not being critical, just realistic. Hopefully though, this letter will help to jumpstart that.”