By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun
9:17 PM EDT, April 5, 2013
As thousands of federal workers prepare to be furloughed, many are concerned about how to deal with a pay cut.
Keith Everett, a chief steward with the American Federation of Government Employees, said his union held two meetings in recent weeks at Fort Meade for workers, many of whom had the same financial questions: Can I apply for unemployment benefits? Will I receive back pay if lawmakers eventually reach some agreement on budget cuts?
The answers: No and no.
"Everyone is hoping [lawmakers] come together and we can do without this furlough," said Everett, a lead medical support administrator at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center at the Army base in Anne Arundel County.
Unpaid furloughs are just one of the ways that federal agencies are trying to comply with the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts from March through the end of September known as the sequester.
The use of furloughs will vary from agency to agency. Some organizations will require workers to take a few days or a couple of weeks off during the next several months. Others, including the Office of Personnel Management, will avoid furloughs by trimming their budgets in other ways.
Workers have no control over the number of days they will be furloughed. Unions say they are trying to negotiate with agencies to limit the hardship on employees — such as giving them a say on which days they must take off.
But some of the biggest worries for workers right now are financial, union officials say.
Jataun Shelton, a union steward and a certified pharmacy technician at Kimbrough, is one of those concerned. Shelton, 40, expects to be furloughed for 14 days. Until recently, she was looking at as many as 22 days without pay.
"It's still a hardship," she said.
Shelton said she doesn't have a lot of savings and lives paycheck to every other paycheck. Part of her pay goes toward buying medications for her mother and grandmother in Missouri, she said.
"I can't just cut them off," said Shelton. She said she has considered getting a part-time job to make up for lost income from the furlough.
The Office of Personnel Management posted a furlough guide on its website for workers, and unions, too, are trying to address financial concerns.
Here are some answers to questions workers might have:
•Workers may pursue part-time work, although OPM advises them to make sure in advance that the outside job doesn't violate their agency's ethics policy or regulations.
•Workers may not use vacation, sick time, or any other paid leave days in place of the furlough.
•Employees can't request to be furloughed — even if motivated by altruism to reduce the amount of unpaid time off by others. They may ask for unpaid leave. But even if this results in a savings, there's no guarantee that it would be enough to eliminate an agency's need to furlough workers, the OPM warns.
•Workers may not do their job for free during a furlough.
•The OPM says employees might be eligible for unemployment benefits, but workers should check with their home state.
Maryland's Department of Unemployment Insurance said federal workers furloughed up to two days a week would be ineligible, but those off work three or more days per week may file for benefits by calling a state claim center.
•Workers often have automatic deductions from paychecks. With furloughs reducing pay, however, workers' paychecks might not be large enough to fully cover all those deductions.
In such cases, the government will prioritize deductions. The deduction for pensions is at the top, followed by deductions for Social Security, Medicare, federal income tax and health insurance.
If the furloughs reduce paychecks to the point that workers can't afford their health insurance, they have a few options, said Gina Lightfoot Walker, federal director of the National Association of Government Employees.
They can terminate coverage or pre-pay premiums now while they still have a bigger paycheck, she said. Or, they can keep coverage and agree to repay any missed premiums later through payroll deductions, she said.
•Furloughed workers will remain covered under insurance plans for life, dental and vision and long-term care, although the OPM says workers must keep up with premiums.
•Workers who become financially strapped during the sequester and need counseling should check out employee assistance programs offered at work. Some agencies' programs offer financial consulting services, the OPM said.
•Workers who contribute a percentage of their pay to the Thrift Savings Plan will see their contributions fall as income drops. But that's not the case for those who contribute a flat dollar amount each pay period. These workers should review whether they want to adjust contributions during the period when their paychecks will be smaller, the retirement plan advised.
•The furlough will not reduce pension benefits, which are determined by a formula using a worker's highest salary over three year period.
It's not just workers who worry about benefits in a furlough.
Most of the 270,000 members of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association are retired, and their top concerns are whether the sequester will stop the flow of their retirement checks or reduce the size of them, said Jessica Klement, the group's legislative director.
Retirees should still receive their checks, Klement said. The sequester should not reduce the sum.
Everett, the AFGE union steward, faces up to 14 days of furlough. He said the pay cut from the furlough comes at a bad time. His 18-year-old daughter will be heading off to her freshman year in college this fall, and the tuition bill will be coming due. The family has already paid a room and board deposit of about $4,000.
He already had planned to be an umpire for Montgomery County Little League this summer, but now the family will need the extra cash, he said.
Everett said today's furloughs remind him of the government shutdown in the mid-1990s, when he was off work for three weeks.
Back then, there was a silver lining. Everett's daughter was 1 at the time, he said, and "I loved spending as much time as I could with her."
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