Staff at the William J. Hughes Technical Center has again been told to prepare for the possibility of furloughs — less than two years after a two-week shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration left hundreds of employees out of work.
In an email sent to employees of the Egg Harbor Township-based center Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said that the department is considering cuts to vital programs, as well as operational and administrative costs in anticipation of Congress’ March 1 deadline to solve federal budget issues. Not meeting the deadline will trigger significant automatic spending cuts.
“We will use any and all flexibilities we have to protect our core operations and mission. However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress,” Porcari wrote. “We may also have to consider placing employees on temporary furlough, or taking other personnel actions.”
In a forum Tuesday at the tech center some union members were told employees should prepare to take an average of 11 furlough days or as many as 22 before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, said Gary Baca, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 200, which represents approximately 360 engineers and technicians at the tech center.
About 14 members of the union were furloughed in 2011, but the majority were not because they were deemed essential. This time around, however, the union has been told nearly everyone will be affected, said Baca, noting that furloughs would be especially difficult at this point in the year because the cuts would come in a short period of time.
“My union is going to try to negotiate so that there is flexibility in when the time can be taken to make it easier for employees,” Baca said. “It could be much more painful for families where multiple people are government employees.”
Employees placed on furlough will be given 30-days notice, or the amount of notice required by collective bargaining agreements, wrote Porcari, adding that further information about how the furloughs would be implemented would come from direct management.
A series of automatic budget cuts, also referred to as the sequester, are scheduled to take effect March 1. Sequestration was previously scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 but was delayed. With the March 1 deadline looming, President Barack Obama on Tuesday asked Congress to approve a package of smaller cuts that would delay the effects of a sequester for a few more months.
Unlike the furlough situation tech center employees faced previously, which only affected the FAA, the current situation would have an affect across the federal government. In July 2011, more than 600 tech center employees were furloughed for nearly two weeks when legislators were unable to settle a partisan dispute over the administration’s operating authority.
If the March 1 deadline is not met, the FAA would see about a 5 percent budget cut for the remainder of the fiscal year, amounting to approximately $629 million, down from the $1.3 billion cut previously discussed as the Jan. 1 deadline approached. Only the agency’s Aviation Improvement Program would be required to be exempt from the cuts.
The FAA would have discretion to implement those cuts any way it chooses and would not address specific questions Wednesday.
It’s unclear how specific initiatives, such as the NextGen Air Transportation System, would be affected. Concepts for that program, which will realize efficiencies in air travel, are all tested locally at the tech center. Some trade groups such as the Aerospace Industries Association, however, have speculated that sequestration could result in a 30 to 50 percent cut to NextGen if the FAA scales back its procurement and research programs to protect its operating accounts.
Jason Galanes, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said the congressman is deeply concerned about the impact to employees, but believes Obama’s proposed short-term solution of implementing tax hikes is not the answer.
“The congressman believes you have to look at this responsibly. You can’t have crazy spending cuts without fixing the problem,” he said.
Most agencies have not yet said how any potential cuts would be implemented. On Wednesday, however, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta detailed the cuts that could be coming at the Pentagon in a speech at Georgetown University.
The military would furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 days over five months and would lay off up to 46,000 temporary and contract employees, among other measures, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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