Sequestration-related furloughs may still be at least a month away, but agencies already are feeling the effects of budget cuts.
Border Patrol agents, Transportation Security officers and many other federal employees are beginning to experience major changes in how they do their jobs.
Both Border Patrol agents and TSOs have been told by their respective agencies — Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration — that one way they will deal with cuts from sequestration is by ending overtime for workers.
“Right now, TSA lives on overtime. That’s how we man a lot of the lanes that are open,” said Stacy Bodtmann, a TSO and vice president of AFGE in Region 1, Wednesday during a press conference held by the American Federation of Government Employees in Washington. “We also are short staffed at a lot of the airports and overtime fills that gap. Right now, at many of the airports you will see [a smaller number of] lanes opened, which will increase the lines.”
As of now, TSA does not plan to furlough employees. But Bodtmann said that could change as it has to make up budget shortfalls brought on by sequestration.
TSA is not alone in having to use overtime to fill gaps in coverage.
Border Patrol agents routinely work 18-to-20 hours of overtime per pay period.
CBP, however, will no longer let agents work overtime starting April 7, said Shawn Moran, a vice president of AFGE’s National Border Patrol Council.
One Border Patrol union representative said overtime is a way of life for Border Patrol agents and it’s not because of the desire to receive more pay, but because CBP can’t hire enough staff to man the borders and the vastness of the border.
The representative said some agents have to travel an hour or more to get to their stations and oversee their areas of responsibilities. Additionally, if they arrest illegal immigrants, they have to complete paperwork. Many times, the overtime is more about getting the job done than just milking the system, he said.
Moran said the impact of no overtime already is being felt.
“At the Rio Grande Valley sector, specifically the McGowan, Texas, Border Patrol station, 10 days ago apprehended 1,000 illegal aliens in one weekend,” he said. “Agents questioned the illegal aliens as to why they were crossing. They were under the understanding they would be released from our detention facilities and there would be no consequences. These weren’t groups we were chasing. These were groups of hundreds that would come across, sit down and surrender. That is a definite concern for our agents.”
Moran said he’s concerned that the overtime will never come back.
“It’s one that the Border Patrol has paid since at least the 1960s, and they are still advertising in hiring sprees that they will be paying this regular and reoccurring overtime and it’s just a flat out lie,” Moran said.
The furloughs and cuts to overtime are equivalent to having 5,000 fewer border agents on the job, AFGE said.
Beyond the cuts in overtime, agencies are seeing impacts before sequestration takes place in other ways.
SSA offers new round of early retirements
The Social Security Administration is offering early retirements to eligible employees but not buyouts.
Steve Kofahl, the vice president of AFGE’s National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said employees have a wide window of time to retire a bit earlier than usual this fiscal year.
“Our concern is that not only is this going to accelerate the loss of workers at our agency and increase stress on everyone who is left behind, it also will have a tremendous impact on the public because our most experienced workers are the ones eligible for these early outs,” he said. “With early outs, people can retire if they have enough years of service and have reached the age of 50, for instance. But there is no cash up front as there is with buyouts. We did ask the agency about buyout possibilities so we could avoid furloughs, but the agency decided they weren’t going to do that and they were going to offer early outs over an extended period instead.”
Kofahl said SSA’s workforce has been fairly stable and there haven’t been too many employees who have taken buyouts or early outs. But he said the working environment is getting more stressful and more people are strongly considering leaving.
He said SSA is in its second year of a hiring freeze, has closed 47 field offices and 300 contact stations, and has cut office hours across the board by 23 percent.
SSA needs to find a way to cut $386 million from its budget under sequestration.
“As the stress increases, as the public becomes more angry, as people get frustrated because we have reduced our office hours because we can’t answer the phones and because claims take much longer to process, it becomes so unpleasant for our workers,” Kofahl said. “If they have an option, they may well take it and we’ll lose some of our best people.”
SSA has yet to decide whether furloughs will take place yet. Kofahl said based on what he’s seeing with the budget on Capitol Hill, furloughs are a distinct possibility.
12 days of furlough for BoP
The Bureau of Prisons also is feeling the effects of having to reduce its budget.
Dale Deshotel, the president of AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals, said changes are happening already, even before the Bureau has to reduce its budget by $338 million in part by furloughing employees for 12 days.
“For Bureau of Prisons officers, there will be no overtime, no travel and no more training,” Deshotel said. “Training that is important in law enforcement. Training that has to be sudden, no time to think, reactionary, and it will be gone. Our staffing will be cut to extremely dangerous situations.”
Additionally, BOP will stop work on five new prisons set to house 8,000 prisoners.
“These new facilities were meant to relieve some of the problems of prison overcrowding,” Deshotel said. “Not opening them will only worsen problems in our prison system, and increase the stress, danger and overall ineffectiveness for correction officers.”
He added prisons are anywhere from 30 percent-to-40 percent overcrowded today.
SSA’s Kofahl said each of these agencies is facing a “death by a thousand cuts.”
Despite AFGE’s attempts to put a face on cuts because of sequestration, lawmakers haven’t acted to stop it or even replace it with what many call more rational cuts.
The House passed a spending bill for fiscal 2013 that keeps the spending reductions from sequestration in place, but gives the Defense Department more flexibility to deal with them.
The Senate is debating a bill that would make only minor changes to sequestration-related cuts.
Worse than a shutdown
J. David Cox, AFGE’s national president, said Congress has yet to realize the impact sequestration cuts will have on the nation. He said this isn’t a federal employee issue, but one for all citizens.
Cox summed up the challenge of getting Congress to understand the impact of the cuts by using the old analogy of a frog being boiled alive but he doesn’t realize it because it starts in cold water.
“I believe the frog at this point is in lukewarm water. It’s still kind of cool and nice to swim around in, and everyone’s talking. Eventually that water is going to get so hot, you will not be able to stand it,” he said. “The sad part is I’m afraid people will be boiled alive and not realize they were in the cold water. This is not like a government shutdown. I believe this is 10,000 times worse than a government shutdown. A government shutdown that brings the government to a halt very quickly gets attention, and even though in 1995, we were about two weeks into the shutdown before the American public said we weren’t going to put up with this anymore. This is one of those things, each morning, you are going to wake up and the situation is going to be worse.”