By Joe Davidson
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Patricia McGinn loses sleep fretting about lost wages.
Mary Watkins paid off a couple of bills early, just in case.
Laura Hill has a question about unemployment compensation.
Each of these federal employees have different circumstances, but they all share a big concern — the unpaid leave days facing the workforce.
Federal furloughs seem more and more likely as a disgusted nation and frustrated workers count down the days until March 1, when across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration kick in.
Furloughs would not be immediate; agencies must give employees 30 days’ notice. But the impact could be severe. The Pentagon estimates that most of its 800,000 civilian employees could lose up to 20 percent of their pay from 22 furlough days, spread over as many weeks. Estimates from other agencies are lower, and some might be able to deal with the budget cuts with no furloughs at all.
But the uncertainly of not knowing what your paycheck is going to look like in a couple of months is a stiff price for federal employees to pay for the inability of Congress to do its job.
While the financial costs to individuals from a sequester are at least a few weeks away, the emotional costs are building now.
“I can’t even sleep at night thinking about it,” said McGinn, a Federal Aviation Administration management program analyst who lives in Glen Burnie, Md.
McGinn, a single mother with two teenagers, said employees were told they could be furloughed two to four days a month, which could leave her monthly income short by $600 to $1,200.
“I can’t even take $50 out of my paycheck,” she said, “let alone $600 to $1,200.”
If the hit is $600, she said, she “could possibly manage” by stopping cable TV, Internet and telephone service. If a furlough takes $1,200 of her monthly pay, “I honestly can’t imagine how I would handle it,” she said.
Don’t tell her to lean on her family.
“My brother is a federal employee as well,” she said. So is her brother-in-law. She doesn’t want to take it, but she said her 18-year-old son, Michael, offered to give her his little pay so they don’t lose the house. But Michael works for a federal credit union, so the ripple effect of government furloughs could hit him, too.
Mary Watkins, a senior project manager for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago, doesn’t seem as worried about her personal financial situation, but she, too, has had to make some changes.
She’s limiting her spending mostly to necessities, which means she canceled a trip with her jazz club to Dubai. “I have to look at what I need to do versus spending that money,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’ve got to be able to pay my mortgage.”
She can see the effects the potential furloughs are having weeks before they would be implemented in other ways. “Morale is not good,” she said.
And Watkins, who is a local chairwoman of the Combined Federal Campaign, a workplace charity program, said that “a lot of people did not give this year because of all this going on.”
Retirements are up, she said, because workers are worried that unpaid leave days could affect their annuity calculations.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Watkins, who has been a federal employee for 28 years. “Never expected anything like this. I gather people don’t understand what government employees do. Many of us do this because we want to serve. They don’t seem to understand that.”
With a husband who has a good income, Laura Hill, a Defense Department employee from Annandale, Va., is more fortunate than some colleagues. In fact, if furlough days are imposed, “having a day of ‘me time’ would not be a bad thing for me during the week,” said the mother of a 7-month-old boy.
But she’s concerned about co-workers, who wonder whether they would be eligible for unemployment compensation.
“It is possible that furloughed employees may become eligible for unemployment compensation,” says the Office of Personnel Management’s “Guidance for Administrative Furloughs,” published this month. But state requirements differ, so employees would have to check locally to learn if they are eligible.
If the furloughs hit, some could seek loans from the Federal Employee Education & Assistance Fund (FEEA). It is a private charity dedicated to helping federal employees with small, no-interest loans or, in some cases, grants.
It is bracing for more business than it can handle if the budget cuts come. Inquiries related to furloughs “have increased steadily over the last two months. They are coming from both individuals and from managers worried about their staffs,” said Steve Bauer, executive director of FEEA, which gets no federal funding.
“It may be the first time that we will have to say, ‘We are out of money,’ and therefore helping will have to await additional fundraising,” he added. “Naturally, that puts us in a terrible position, as most of our support comes from the very federal employees facing furloughs.”