U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist James Silverio gives his dog Millie a high five after Millie found some agricultural products in a suitcase at Miami International Airport.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist James Silverio gives his dog Millie a high five after Millie found some agricultural products in a suitcase at Miami International Airport. Wilfredo Lee/AP

CBP Walks Back Furlough Threat

As many as 8,000 customs officers and other employees could be sent home without pay.

EDITOR'S NOTE: After publishing this story, CBP reached out to Government Executive to say it had provided inaccurate information. In a new statement, the agency said, “To be clear, the prior statement was inaccurate. CBP does not have plans to furlough employees. Although the decrease in travelers have resulted in lower fee collections, CBP is addressing this issue with the full expectation and confidence that furloughs will not be necessary.” The headline has been updated to reflect this change. The original story is below. 

Another component of the Homeland Security Department said it will have to force employees to take unpaid time off absent congressional intervention, pointing to a dramatic drop off in fees the agency has collected due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Customs and Border Protection expects to furlough employees unless it receives additional funding from Congress or permission to reallocate funds it already has, an agency spokesperson said. CBP has 8,000 employees in its Office of Field Operations whose salaries are fee-funded and therefore could be subject to furloughs. 

CBP is following U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in warning employees about the potential for furloughs. USCIS, a fee-funded agency, will send out furlough notices to more than 70% of its workforce in the coming days due to a severe downturn in application receipts. The agency is seeking $1.2 billion to offset its shortfall, but appropriators have said they are still waiting for a formal request from the administration. 

Over the last three months, international air travel is down a whopping 95% compared to the same period in 2019. CBP’s fee collections, which closely track such travel, is “declining similarly,” said Stephanie Malin, the CPB spokeswoman. 

“CBP is working closely with DHS, [the Office of Management and Budget], and Congress on declining collections,” Malin said. She added any formal request would come from OMB and DHS. 

While furloughs are on the table, the agency is optimistic they can be avoided. 

“Without some assistance from Congress, either additional funds or authority to realign from acquisition accounts, furloughs are likely,” Malin said, “though CBP believes that DHS, OMB, and Congress all want to avoid furloughs at ports of entry so we are hopeful that some assistance will be coming.” 

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP’s Office of Field Operations employees, warned about potential furloughs at CBP at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing this week. 

“Without appropriated funding to support these CBP officers in [fiscal] 2020, we are gravely concerned that this loss of user fee funding could result in furloughs at a time when trade and travel will be struggling to return to normal,” Reardon said.

He cited the drop in international travel, and to a lesser extent trade, for the budget shortfall and warned the lower collections would likely continue into fiscal 2021. Reardon said the data shown to NTEU has revealed a $400 million shortfall at CBP through fiscal 2020 and a need for $1.5 billion in additional appropriations next fiscal year. 

“CBP employees at the ports of entry already face many challenges in the course of their work and concerns about their health and safety or of being furloughed as the country reopens for business should not be among them,” he said. 

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, encouraged his colleagues at the hearing to come up with funding to avoid employee furloughs, noting the coronavirus pandemic is damaging the physical and mental health even of those who do not contract COVID-19. 

“Unemployment can lead to both physical and mental health issues,” Crenshaw said. “We must get creative in addressing this shortfall.”