Unlike Some Benefits, Sequester Is Here to Stay

As sharp budget cuts set in, unions negotiate to keep fringe benefits.

Remember the days when everyone from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., called sequestration bad policy, and President Obama said it “will not happen”?

Oh, how far we have come.

The across-the-board spending cuts are already in effect, and federal employee furloughs are all but certain. Notices have been sent out at several agencies, and lawmakers are pessimistic about any last-ditch efforts to cancel the across-the-board cuts.

“There will definitely be, in this year, there will be agencies that will be doing furloughs,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Government Executive on Monday after a town hall meeting with U.S. Census Bureau employees.

The House and Senate have already passed separate spending bills for the remainder of the fiscal year, and both keep sequestration-level budgets in place.

Dozens of federal agencies have announced the specifics of their furlough plans. A few say they will be able to stay within their diminished budget levels without forcing unpaid leave by freezing hiring and cutting other costs, such as travel and training.

Benefits on the Table

As agencies look for ways to save money to meet new spending targets, managers are targeting everything from transit benefits to…compressed work schedules? More on that in a minute.

The Labor Department has already slashed its maximum transit subsidy to the 2012 level of $125 a month, according to Peter Winch, who oversees the American Federation of Government Employees’ field services and education programs.

The maximum possible subsidy rose to $245 per month as part of the so-called fiscal-cliff deal Congress passed at the start of the year, but each agency can set a lower threshold for its internal max.

The transit benefit has also taken heat at the Housing and Urban Development Department. The National Federation of Federal Employees local president representing HUD workers in California, Arizona and Nevada said the agency had wanted to keep the $125 monthly maximum in place -- as it has throughout 2013 -- but after bargaining agreed to start the increased subsidy beginning April 1.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, has said it will end the compressed work schedule -- which allows federal employees to work nine-hour days so they can take off one day per pay period -- at certain locations, Winch said. AFGE said it will likely litigate this decision, as it offers the government no savings.

The NFFE official said HUD also threatened the schedule, but the union was ultimately able to keep it in place after bargaining with the agency.

Jerry Brown, a HUD spokesman, said the department only considered eliminating the nine-hour schedule to simplify its tracking of furlough days.

Healthy Bases

The Defense Department has announced a pilot program to increase the health and wellness of its force, the Pentagon has announced.

The program -- the Healthy Base Initiative, a part of Operation Live Well -- will focus on helping service members, families and civilians with “informed nutritional food choices, increased physical activity, weight management and tobacco cessation.”

Thirteen Defense sites will participate in the program, 11 of which are military installations.

“A healthy and fit force is essential to national security as service members must be physically prepared to deploy in a moment's notice anywhere on the globe to extremely austere and demanding conditions,” the Pentagon said in a statement.