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As Congress Returns, a Shutdown Isn’t the Only Threat Feds Face

Unions prepare to fight agency closures and other measures affecting feds’ pay, benefits and job security.

Congress returned from its annual summer recess on Tuesday, facing a familiar threat: the possibility of a government shutdown at the end of the month.

For federal employees and their labor groups, avoiding the forced furloughs and delayed paychecks that can accompany an appropriations lapse is priority No. 1. However, several other measures primed for consideration as Congress gets back to work have captured the attention of the largest federal employee unions as looming areas of concern.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Government Executive aside from the need to fund agencies, he wished Congress would stay on recess.

“I’d like for them to stay out of town for the rest of the year,” Cox said. “That would make my life more complete.”

For federal agencies and their workforces, the most imminent concern is twofold: First, ensuring agencies do not have to close their doors for any amount of time, and second, that they receive the adequate funding necessary to fulfill their missions. Congress must resolve the current budget stalemate before Oct. 1, when current appropriations are set to expire. Any such deal must offset spending increases or comply with the budget caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which will once again take full effect in fiscal 2016 after two years of boosted funding levels.

“Congress has got to end this sequestration madness,” Cox said. Congressional Republicans have insisted fiscal 2016 non-Defense discretionary spending must comply with sequestration caps, while President Obama has vowed to veto any bill that does not boost funding levels. Cox said if congressional negotiations fail and there is a shutdown, it would be “disastrous” for the country, noting it would hurt national Defense, airport screening and, “I guess the inmates will run the federal penitentiaries.”

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said avoiding a shutdown -- which has grown more likely with conservatives vowing a fight over funding for Planned Parenthood -- was his top concern, but the first step of the funding battle.

“We are fighting very hard to get appropriate resources” for agencies, he said. “We are clearly very interested in making certain sequestration doesn’t return in fiscal year 2016.”

Already, he and Cox said, the shutdown talk has hurt the federal workforce. It creates uncertainty, damaging morale and retention efforts. The ongoing threats contribute to fewer young people wanting to join the federal ranks, Cox said.

He added that agencies have already started contingency planning for an appropriations lapse. If the deadline draws nearer with no resolution in sight, agencies will have to -- as they did in 2013 -- release details on which employees would be furloughed and which would be forced to work without immediate pay as their job functions are critical to protecting life or property. Even the most likely non-shutdown scenario would involve a continuing resolution, which hampers agencies’ abilities to conduct long-term planning and puts some projects on hold.

In a Tuesday New York Times op-ed, NASA officials said the agency would have to shut down or postpone its Mars rover and New Horizons missions if a CR is enacted. 

Meanwhile, Reardon said NTEU is monitoring other fiscal 2016 deadlines that could include offsets affecting federal employees’ pay and benefits. The annual extension of a wide array of tax cuts -- including the mass transit benefit for feds and other American workers -- will require an offset, which Reardon said could target federal employees. Congress will also in the coming months have to find a way to boost the highway trust fund. Before lawmakers agreed to a short-term extension earlier this year, suggested pay-fors included privatizing the current Internal Revenue Service function of tax collection and weakening returns on the Thrift Saving Plan’s G Fund.

Of course, as have similar efforts in recent years, any spending deal to offset sequestration could include cuts to federal retirees’ benefits.

Federal employees “are promised a very modest retirement package,” Reardon said. “They work extremely hard to earn that benefit. We have an obligation to ensure that they get it.”

NTEU is also preparing to fight any effort to strip IRS employees of collective bargaining rights. A Republican report released in August and led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, suggested the IRS workforce should not be able to unionize. Hatch cited his perception that union activity exerted a political bias on IRS employees while carrying out their jobs, an assertion Reardon vehemently denied.

“IRS employees are dedicated and committed public servants,” Reardon said, adding there has never been any finding of political motivation “on the part of front-line employees.” The de-unionization proposal was not included in a bipartisan report also released last month.

AFGE’s Cox vowed to support NTEU’s fight against “union busting,” noting, “NTEU’s fight is AFGE’s fight.” For now, his top non-shutdown concern involves a measure to ease the firing of employees at the Veterans Affairs Department. AFGE represents a large swath of the department’s workforce.

“It’s going to be top of our burner,” Cox said. Florida Republicans Rep. Jeff Miller and Sen. Marco Rubio “have some passionate desire to strip every VA employee of every right,” he added.

The House passed Miller’s bill just before the August recess, though Obama has threatened to veto it. Cox said AFGE is working with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., on an alternative proposal to boost accountability measures at VA while retaining due process.

Cox said no matter what Congress throws at the federal workforce, his union will not sit idly by.

“We’ll be fighting back,” he said. 

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