Government workers here gradually feeling sting of federal sequestration
By Sandra Guy | email@example.com July 5, 2013 9:22PM
Beth Tackett, administrative executive to the commanding officer at Great Lakes Naval Station works at her desk. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 8, 2013 6:16AM
Elizabeth Tackett, a single mom with two kids, has taken out a personal loan to help cover monthly bills as she prepares to take 11 congressionally mandated unpaid furlough days that will slash her take-home pay by 20 percent.
“To me, it’s a drastic cut,” said Tackett, a 39-year-old former U.S. Marine and Antioch resident who a year ago started her job as the executive assistant to the commanding officer at Great Lakes Naval Station. “The only positive thing is it gives me one day a week to spend with my children, ages 9 and 12, throughout the summer. We will have to do things that are cost-effective, like riding bikes and going to the park and to the public pool.”
The children have started doing their part by sacrificing TV and Internet access at home, unplugging as many gadgets as possible and turning off the lights after 8 p.m.
The furlough days result from automatic, federal spending cuts known as sequestration that kicked in March 1 and take effect over time. The cuts are happening because Congress passed a law two years ago mandating $1 trillion in arbitrary budget cuts if lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan to slash the deficit by $4 trillion. Critics blame sequestration’s effects for everything from endangering the nation’s military readiness — $500 billion in defense cuts have grounded Navy fleet deployments, Army combat training and more than 30 Air Force squadrons — to depleting the number of animal keepers at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., so drastically that Rusty, the red panda, escaped June 24. Rusty was rescued with the help of “shares” on social media as people tracked sightings.
Yet the cuts at many agencies could have been more severe.
Civilians at Great Lakes initially faced 22 furlough days — twice what they must endure.
President Barack Obama on March 26 signed a funding measure that let the Department of Defense move money to different accounts, including $10 billion into operations and maintenance.
Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said other factors are at play: More federal government employees than expected are retiring (there were 73,000 fewer federal government employees in May 2013 than in May 2012); an improving economy is helping offset the revenue cuts; and many federal agencies have figured out how to get by with less.
“The impacts are not as sudden or harsh as originally thought when we were back on the fiscal cliff,” Fuller said.
Morningstar economist Bob Johnson said the pain is working, reducing the nation’s budget deficit.
“We thought the deficit would be 5 percent to 5.5 percent of gross domestic product, but the latest report says it will be 4 percent for this fiscal year and is on its way to 2 percent to 2.5 percent in the next couple of years,” said Johnson, citing the latest reports from the Congressional Budget Office.
In other words, the economy is doing well enough to put some money back into the government’s piggy bank.
That’s not much comfort to Tackett and other federal employees, many of whom have had no cost-of-living pay increases in three years.
She said she would be embarrassed to go to a food pantry or go on food stamps, but she would if she had to. “I am a government employee. I am a veteran. I don’t feel I have to be put in a position of getting assistance. How does that save the government money?”
Tackett is one of 3,600 civil servants at Great Lakes who must take the unpaid furlough days — one day a week for 11 weeks, starting this week.
Great Lakes workers will suffer in other ways: A Fourth of July festival and fireworks are canceled; a fitness center and a car-repair garage are shut down, and a recreation spot has shorter hours.
Other Chicago-area federal workers must take unpaid furlough days, too, including those at the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The 1,160 EPA employees in Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, started taking unpaid furlough days one day every two weeks in mid-April, leaving fewer inspectors to ensure that manufacturers and other companies adhere to air and water pollution laws, said Susan Hedman, EPA’s regional administrator.
“We are the environmental cop on the beat,” she said. “We are inspecting less. Our inspections are severely impacted because we cut personnel and travel significantly.”
The IRS will shutter offices, toll-free hot lines and taxpayer assistance centers on July 22 and Aug. 30, after closing for three previous days.
The agency’s 1,400 employees in the Chicago area started taking five unpaid furlough days May 24 and may have to take another one or two days, IRS spokesman Michael T. Devine said.
“HUD workers must take seven furlough days, which will result in a 20 percent pay cut for 400 HUD employees in the Chicago area. The employees’ union is trying to negotiate fewer.
John Ross, a HUD customer service representative and an officer in the American Federation of Government Employees Council 222 in Chicago, said he has started clipping coupons and stopped making extra mortgage-principal payments on his house in the Ashburn neighborhood.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Ross, the family breadwinner who has worked for HUD for more than 35 years. “I am a man of faith, so I stand in that and look for it to get better.”
Other cuts affect people charged with federal crimes and those who need information from the federal courts.
The Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois may lay off one-third of its 40 employees if a 13 percent budget cut goes into effect Oct. 1 as expected, said Carol A. Brook, executive director.
The program took a 10.47 percent cut to its original $8 million budget for fiscal 2013, and the new cut would reduce the budget to $6.2 million.
The Federal Defender Program — the first of its kind in the country, established 48 years ago — provides lawyers for people charged with a federal crime who cannot afford representation.
The Program has eliminated pension contributions for its employees, implemented a hiring and salary freeze, stopped equipment buys and asked its experts and service providers to take 10 percent fee cuts. The layoffs would be “devastating” to the program’s mission and “be a terrible blow to justice for the people of this district,” Brook said.
Chicago’s Head Start and senior services agencies are finding ways to escape cuts that would hurt people who use their services.
The city faces a 5.27 percent cut in the Head Start budget, or a loss of $6.5 million, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed absorbing that loss through administrative-overhead cuts rather than reducing the numbers of children who can participate, said Matt Smith, director of communications for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services. The federal government hasn’t yet responded to Emanuel’s idea.
As for the city’s senior programs, federal funding is being cut by 2.3 percent, or $254,587, for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
But the Illinois Department on Aging has allocated $15.5 million in state and federal money that will result in a 2.85 percent increase in the budget, Smith said.
Educators, social-service providers and others who receive federal money remain uncertain about what may happen.
Michael Stroscio, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is being cautious about hiring new doctoral students to help him work on his research into advanced, high-resolution sensors.
He is concerned that his three-year grant for research from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research may not be fully funded. The grant is for about $130,000 a year.
“It is hard to predict what will happen this summer and next year,” said Stroscio, who has two to three students working on the project.
Because students rely on the research for about half of their income, splitting their time between research and teaching, the grant’s cutoff “would have a huge impact,” he said.
The uncertainty stems partly from the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense is taking a 9.4 percent hit from sequestration, while other departments suffered a 5 percent cut.
If the cuts continue, the nation’s advances in computing will suffer, especially because the Defense Department historically has funded 70 percent of civilian and military research into computing and electronics, Stroscio said.
“This could be devastating in those science and engineering areas where DOD has played a major role,” he said.