June 23, 2018
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Federal agencies, workers bracing for furloughs despite Pentagon delay

By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Despite the Pentagon’s Thursday announcement that it is delaying for two weeks a decision on how many of its 800,000 civilian workers will face unpaid furlough days, nearly 7,000 Mainers employed by the Department of Defense and other federal employees in the state are bracing for budget-mandated cutbacks.

“We’re all just waiting to hear and proceeding as if it’s going to occur,” James Canders, Bangor International Airport’s assistant director, said Thursday. “We’ve already seen some indications of it because [Transportation Safety Administration] and customs personnel have already been affected.”

The furloughs — unpaid work days which will likely be required by federally-mandated automatic spending cuts triggered on March 1 by the country’s budget deficit — could go into effect as early as April 21.

The Pentagon has said sequestration would force it to put most of its civilian work force on unpaid leave for the maximum allowable 22 days between late April and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The department had planned to direct workers to take a day off per week for 22 weeks, effectively cutting their pay by about 20 percent. Defense department officials, who at least initially expected to put 80 percent of its workforce on unpaid leave at various times, have now put a final decision on hold to analyze the effect of a 2013 fiscal year funding measure approved by Congress and now before President Barack Obama.

Some notices warning workers have gone out, according to Maine officials.

“I can certainly confirm that the notices did go out and it was on a standard form letter,” said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, the Maine National Guard’s state public affairs officer. “We are continuing to take all of the necessary preparations and precautions anyway, because it’s the prudent thing to do, but we’re thinking it’s a sign of good news and that maybe these furlough days will not happen.”

In all, there are 1,100 Maine Air Guard members and another 2,100 Maine Army National guardsmen. Of those, 570 — known as federal technicians — would be required to take furlough days, according to Steinbuchel.

“April 20 was the earliest date those could take effect, but now it’s looking like May 13,” said Steinbuchel, who said the furloughs would affect training and readiness levels. “The impact is potentially one day a week for 22 weeks for each federal technician.”

Statewide, besides the 570 guardsmen affected, another 4,700 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and 600 at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service office in Limestone were targeted for possible furloughs, according to Peter Rogers, a spokesman for the The Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.

Sequestration has already been felt in Maine, officials say.

“We had a flight from Dublin [Ireland] Sunday night at 1 a.m. which was trying to get in here, but they ended up having to go to Dulles [Washington D.C.] because of the overtime situation,” Canders said. “We didn’t have enough security and customs people available, and they couldn’t go to Pease or Logan either because they were in the same boat.”

Federal agencies are already holding the line on overtime due to budget constraints and not approving overtime, even in situations like the one late Sunday.

Canders and BIA Director Tony Caruso estimated that it cost BIA several thousand dollars in revenue for fueling and other services that likely would have been provided to the Dublin airliner.

“We are starting to feel the true effects of those cuts created from sequestration, but we’re pleased the FAA is delaying last month’s decision to reduce hours and staffing at a number of airports nationally,” Caruso said Thursday afternoon. “That means there will be no reduction in our tower hours at least until July.”

Caruso is in Washington, D.C. to meet with FAA officials as well as Maine congressional representatives to lobby on behalf of BIA.

“We still have to develop some contingency plans,” Caruso said.

One of those contingency plans — a pilot-controlled lighting system — will be installed at BIA in three or four weeks.

“We’ve already purchased some lighting equipment to accommodate uncontrolled landing field conditions,” Canders said. “It activates the entire runway and taxiing lighting system remotely, and pilots can not only switch it on and off, they can also adjust the lighting intensity.”

While many federal agencies don’t have a lot of flexibility when it comes to budget deficit-related cuts, some do. The U.S. District Court in Maine has already shifted money around in its budget to avoid having to affect personnel.

“Judiciary is different from executive in that we aren’t mandated as an organization to use furloughs,” Christa Berry, U.S. District Court Clerk in Portland, said. “Every court has a local budget and they can each decide to use furloughs, eliminate positions or do nothing at all.”

For example, a Utah court finding itself short hundreds of thousands of dollars for employee wages might have to furlough employees for 14 days.

“Here in Maine, the U.S. District Court is short in payroll, but we’re able to avoid furloughs and position eliminations because we’ve been able to conserve cash in other areas of our budget or shift unspent money to cover payroll obligations,” Berry said.

Berry said proactive decisions such as opting not to fill open full- and part-time positions has also helped the court avoid furloughs and job cuts.

“We each get an allotment that has been steadily declining for a couple years, so we’ve had to become a lean machine,” Berry said.

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