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.