Local federal employees prepare for furloughs

By Melissa Quinn

After kicking the sequestration can farther down the road, Washington officials let the March 1 deadline for enacting $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over a 10-year span — including $85 billion this year — slip by.

And without high hopes for a new deal, federal agencies have begun to hurriedly make the mandated, across-the-board cuts. No area is likely to feel the effects quite like Northern Virginia.

The region is home to more than 100,000 federal workers who now face furloughs of up to 22 days. While furloughed workers were reimbursed for their unpaid leave in the past, they will not receive compensation this time.

“They only thing [Republicans and Democrats] can agree on is screwing the federal employees,” said Dino Drudi, who has worked for the federal government since 1978. “No one gets screwed by the sequester more than federal employees. It’s the only group in society they feel they can get away with screwing.”

Many government agencies face serious budgetary cutbacks in order to accommodate the sequestration, and for most, furloughing employees is the only way. This region is home to the highest number of federal employees in the state and acts as headquarters to heavy-hitting government contractors like Northrop Grumman and SAIC.

In Alexandria, the government employs approximately 13 percent of the population — though that figure excludes contractors. The Port City, however, boasts less federal workers than surrounding jurisdictions. Government workers make up more than 25 percent of the population in Arlington and Prince George’s County, and the government employs 19 percent of Fairfax County residents.

And since lawmakers have been unable to reach another deal to avoid the cuts, the sequestration could cost nearly 750,000 jobs in the next year, the Congressional Budget Office reported. For Alexandrians facing proposed local tax hikes and possible furloughs, their belts may need tightening.

“Everyone is worried,” Drudi said. “Some people are paycheck to paycheck, and they’re the most worried.”

Many agencies have given employees notice of the impending furloughs, as required by law. Employees will begin to see a 20-percent decrease in pay — the equivalent of the unpaid time off — beginning April 1 and running through the final six months of the fiscal year. Local lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) are aware of the burden that they will place on residents.

“Allowing sequestration to occur is reckless and inexcusable,” said Moran. “Federal workers will feel the brunt of its impact … many with mortgages, car payments, children in college and other financial responsibilities. Their slashed family budgets will result in a hit to local businesses across the region.”

Moran voted against the 2011 Budget Control Act, which created the sequestration in an effort to encourage Congress to pass a budget.

“It’s unfair to ask [federal workers] to carry the burden of Congress’s failure to act responsibly,” Moran said.
Democrats and Republicans drafted proposals in an effort to stop the sequestered cuts, but neither garnered enough support to pass in the U.S. Senate.

“Everybody is going to have some inconvenience that comes out of this,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “[The sequestration] won’t kill the economy, but it certainly won’t help.”

As federal workers living in Alexandria prepare for furloughs, many may be forced to re-examine discretionary spending and even eliminate contributions to savings and retirement funds, he said.

“This is very brutal to some segments of the population,” Fuller said. “To the individual, this is going to be impactful and there is no way around it.”

Fuller, though, said Congress does have a chance to remedy the situation. Democrats and Republicans have until March 27 to negotiate a solution to the sequestration as part of a plan to keep the federal government open.

But until then, agencies have no choice but to prepare for deep cuts.

“This is a perfect storm,” Drudi said. “When the politicians — elected by the people — make a mess, it’s usually the bureaucracy that has to clean it up.”

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