Federal worker furloughs begin

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WASHINGTON — After months of nervous anticipation, federal workers begin the first major round of furloughs this week, even as much uncertainty remains at some agencies about how much time, if any, employees will lose from their jobs because of mandated spending cuts.

About 17,000 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency also face furloughs beginning this week, as do 480 employees of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

But the Transportation Security Administration, which had warned it would need to furlough 50,000 officers from their jobs protecting airline travel, said last week the agency no longer expects to keep employees off the job.

The Federal Aviation Administration was not so fortunate.

The agency’s plans to furlough 47,000 workers, including air traffic controllers for up to 11 days through the end of September, were set in motion Sunday in spite of a lawsuit filed by two airline associations and the pilots union Friday meant to halt the days of unpaid leave.

Both the FAA and its plaintiffs said they were concerned about air travel disruption and safety.

While not citing furloughs, the FAA reported significant delays at New York area airports Sunday afternoon and evening. Problems at La Guardia were the result of staffing issues and “compacted demand,” the agency said. A series of flights on the well-trod route between that airport and Washington’s Reagan National Airport, popular with politicians and executives, were delayed Sunday.

Newark International Airport in New Jersey faced delays as well. Gate holds, taxi delays and traffic management procedures were affecting departures, the FAA said. But the bulk of flights in and out of National, Washington Dulles and BWI Marshall were listed as being on time.

“I’m not really looking forward to a 10 percent pay cut,” said Steve Abraham, a controller at New York’s Kennedy Airport who begins his first furlough day on Wednesday.

“It’s frustrating, plus we’re being put in a situation of being shorthanded at the busiest time of the year,” added Abraham, who has worked as a controller for 24 years and said morale among his colleagues has plummeted.

Employees at agencies including Defense, Labor and the EPA recently have had their furlough days reduced, though uncertainty remains for some.

Defense officials said that no final decisions have been made about furloughs for the department’s 800,000 civilian employees. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee last week that “hopefully we won’t have to” furlough employees. He added that the department hopes to “at least minimize it.”

The department, which has already lowered the number of expected furlough days to 14 from 21, is examining whether a further reduction is possible. “Maybe we can get better, maybe we can’t,” Hagel told the committee.

Hagel “has asked that we take another close look at furloughs, and we are in the process of doing that,” Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale told Pentagon employees Thursday.

Officials attribute the changed furlough forecasts to new financial calculations made after Congress passed a short-term spending bill last month that has mitigated some of the effects of the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.

EPA officials said employees now face fewer than 10 days of furlough, rather than the 13 days the agency had warned. “I do want to report that the number of furlough hours can be reduced,” Bob Perciasepe, acting administrator for the agency, told employees in a memo April 9.

Labor, which had said that 4,700 employees would face six days of furloughs, now says that 4,000 workers will be furloughed an average of five days.

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