WASHINGTON -- With sequestration underway and furlough notices being sent out, the head of a labor union representing federal workers said Tuesday that federal employees are "the only group that continues to be hit or tapped" as lawmakers continue to clash over government spending.
"Federal employees have already contributed more than their share in trying to figure out this problem," Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told HuffPost. "They're caught in the middle of all this. It's been 27 months without a raise, and now they're facing furlough days through no fault of their own."
Not just a union for Treasury Department employees, NTEU represents workers in 31 different federal agencies, which means Kelley has been receiving a torrent of anxious emails from members who aren't sure what to expect in the coming weeks. In addition to the specter of sequestration-related furloughs, workers face the possibility of a government shutdown if Congress can't settle on a new plan to fund the government when the current one expires on March 27.
"One unpaid furlough day is one too many," Kelley said. "Most federal employees are average, middle-class Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck. ... They're worried about not being able to pay rent or make the house payment."
Some federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service, have already informed workers about how many furlough days they'll face if sequestration remains in place, while other agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, are still trying to figure out of they can withstand the cuts without telling workers to stay home. The $85 billion in across-the-board cuts went into effect on March 1, though it will likely be weeks before workers and the general public start to feel the hit.
A federal workers' union like NTEU doesn't have the power to stop furloughs, but it can negotiate with agencies on how those furloughs are carried out. Kelley said that while some workers may want to space out furlough days to diffuse the financial impact, others may prefer to take their days consecutively if, for example, they pay for child care by the week.
"What we want is to give employees choices, recognizing that agencies have a mission to complete," Kelley said.
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The federal workforce is a favorite target of lawmakers on the right who believe government employees are overcompensated. Democratic lawmakers, too, have been asking federal workers to sacrifice during Washington's budget squabbles, with President Barack Obama having supported a federal pay freeze that's now lasted more than two years. After Obama issued an executive order calling for a 0.5 percent cost-of-living raise beginning in March, House Republicans passed legislation last month to extend the pay freeze another nine months, though the measure is unlikely to move in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Like other federal employee unions, Kelley argued that the well is drying up. Between pay cuts and increased benefit contributions, NTEU has calculated that federal workers have given up roughly $103 billion to deficit reduction over the coming decade.
Nonetheless, members of Congress have called for more belt-tightening from workers, with Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who co-sponsored the recent pay-freeze extension in the House, saying last month that the bill "simply recognizes our current fiscal reality and the fact that government salaries must bear some relationship to the private sector salaries that support them."
Kelley, however, argued that the continuing budget fights -- and their attendant threats of shutdowns and furloughs -- are making government work less attractive.
"I think they are very disheartened, getting caught in all these Washington, D.C., battles," Kelley said of federal employees. Given the pay freezes and potential furloughs, she said, "I think it will give some who were thinking about federal employment a reason to reconsider that. And I think that's a shame. The federal government needs talented people who want to work in public service."