Unions protest furlough plansWith a certain air...


Unions protest furlough plans

With a certain air of futility, federal workers' most obvious advocates -- their unions and members of Congress -- are lashing out at the furloughs that will occur if the deficit reduction summit fails this month.

Washington-area members of the largest federal employees union, the American Federation of Government Employees, are picketing the White House today and plan a rally at the Capitol Sept. 26 at noon. The Capitol rally is expected to draw many out-of-town demonstrators.

But beyond letting off steam, federal employees are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place and may end up being hit by both, according to David Schlein, AFGE's national vice president for the Washington area.

If various federal pressure groups are successful in getting congressional leaders and the White House to agree upon a deficit reduction plan by Oct. 1, federal workers may avoid furloughs that threaten to take them off the payroll 20 percent of the time at least through Jan. 1.

If they avoid furloughs, however, much of the solution for having done so may come out from paychecks of federal employees and government retirees. Tentative agreements from the summit indicate the negotiators would cut the federal contribution to health benefits, freeze military pensions until 1992, cut future cost-of-living increases to 1 percent less than the living cost increase and spread lump sum retirement payments over several years.

These and other cuts affecting the federal work force and its retirees could make up as much as one-fourth of the savings deficit that summit participants need to make over the next five years to meet goals of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, Schlein said.

Beyond political action, which also includes lobbying and draining the AFGE political action committee's reservoir of contributions to federal lawmakers, Schlein said the union was encouraging its locals to negotiate the implementation of furloughs. Federal law doesn't generally allow unions to challenge the government's authority to furlough workers, but it does make negotiable the manner in which layoffs are carried out.

Schlein said AFGE locals may be able to successfully challenge the validity of furloughs if they can show the action was taken without adequate cost-cutting elsewhere in agency budgets.

One of AFGE's chief negotiating goals is to persuade agencies to shut down their operations for a full day, rather than trying to provide public service with as little as one-third of their work forces at any one time. The complete shutdown approach also achieves other non-employee savings in utility and maintenance expenses, he said.

Problems with public service:

Against the dreary backdrop of possible furloughs, the General Accounting Office put out a compilation of its reports on the federal work force through last year.

The congressional auditors concluded that federal employees are still paid too little, hard to recruit, difficult to retain and, generally, not in a good mood.

By GAO's reckoning, the biggest problem remains poor salaries, which often translate into poor public service. Its own survey found the average government paycheck lags 25 percent behind the private sector. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics annual study found the gap to be about 30 percent where like jobs could be compared.)

"The federal government must pay competitive salaries and benefits to recruit and retain a quality work force in a competitive labor market," the report said.

The auditors also stressed the effects of understaffing driven by government efforts to achieve savings. A legendary case is the Social Security Administration, where 17,000 employees were cut back in six years. The giant layoff saved $2 billion, SSA has estimated, but GAO has done several surveys in recent years documenting poor service to the public and low morale.

Finally, GAO has filed a variety of reports dealing with questionable ethics of both management and employees that have tarnished the public service image. They ranged from the Air Force colonel in charge of procurement who failed to disclose he had had contacts with a contractor who later hired him, to the housing official who later lobbied her agency to benefit her clients.

As to the stewardship of public service issues, GAO found the Office of Personnel Management had made better efforts to properly inform agencies of their responsibilities, but it said the agency "will need to sustain its efforts . . . to achieve lasting improvements."

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