Dozens of Offutt Air Force Base workers have joined a nationwide effort to challenge the unpaid furlough days they will be forced to take beginning next week.
Of the 2,550 civilian Defense Department workers at Offutt facing furlough, 88 have filed “requests for reconsideration,” arguing that the furloughs would cause them financial hardship or cause their workplace to suffer.
“I am a single mom with two boys I support with my income,” said one of the requests. “I will have to go on government aid to get by.”
So far, 84 of the requests have been denied, said Mark Cummings, Offutt's chief of labor-employee management relations. The other four were still under consideration. He said simply showing financial hardship isn't reason enough to grant a request.
“People are impacted financially. Unfortunately, that isn't a criterion we could consider,” Cummings said. “They would have to try to make a case that they are the only ones who could do their jobs and that their job was absolutely essential.”
Two unions representing about 900 government employees are supporting the appeals at Offutt. Cummings said all but a half dozen of the requests have come from union workers.
Many workers cited individual circumstances and asked questions. Union leaders complained that the rejections, though, came as nearly identical form letters.
“They never answer any of the questions in anyone's appeals,” said George Sarris, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1486, at Offutt. “It's just that one blanket statement.”
That left union members feeling “insulted and belittled,” said Julie Sheehan, the local's president.
“We were hoping for at least a dignified response,” she said, “but we didn't get it.”
Cummings said the Air Force developed the form letter because of the volume of requests it expected to receive.
“Each one was read by the deciding official, and considered,” he said. “We all sympathize. We're all in the same boat. We know this is going to hit everybody hard, especially those in the lower (pay) grades.”
Nearly all 750,000 of the Defense Department's civilian workers are being required to take 11 days off without pay between July 8 and Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. That amounts to an 18 percent pay cut for that period, and a 4 percent reduction for the year.
The furloughs stem from the sequester, a budget deal made between Congress and the president in 2011 that imposed $100 billion in cuts each year for 10 years, split equally between the Defense Department and other government departments combined.
Most other government departments avoided furloughs by making cuts in other areas. Defense officials originally expected 22 furlough days, then cut the number to 14. It reached 11 days when furlough notices went out in late May.
The notices told employees, though, that they could ask for reconsideration within seven days of receiving their notices. After that they may file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board, which was created by Congress in 1978 to judge job actions that affect pay in federal workplaces.
The union has encouraged federal workers to file the requests for reconsideration and appeal them if denied.
“Folks should be appealing,” said David Cann, the union's director of field service and education. “They should be raising a ruckus and saying 'This isn't right.' ”
Cann said he's not sure how many workers nationally have filed the reconsideration requests, but “I don't think any employees have had their responses honored.”
In the coming weeks, he said, classes will be conducted around the country to teach union members how to fill out the multipage form required to file a protection board appeal. Classes are planned at Offutt on July 17, Sheehan said.
Lawyers who are experienced at working with the Merit Systems Protection Board predict that employees will have little chance of swaying the officers who preside over the hearings.
“I have not heard of any success stories,” said Debra D'Agostino, founding partner of the Federal Practice Group in Washington, D.C., who frequently represents federal employees before the board. “We're really not anticipating that people are going to have much luck.”
The board looks most closely at due process violations and whether the law is being applied fairly, D'Agostino said. The board will be looking to see whether the government failed to give employees the required 30 days' notice, or whether any individual employees were unfairly furloughed. Stories of financial distress are unlikely to interest the board.
“The board's a tough forum,” she said. “They're very laser-focused on the items on their plates.”
Union officials said the long odds against prevailing don't worry them. They hope to shine a spotlight on wasted spending they say could be cut instead of workers' pay.
“The union has been firing on all cylinders to fight sequester,” Cann said. “This is an opportunity for members to really participate in the fight.”
And they want to show that furloughing employees carries its own costs. The budget sequester is scheduled to stretch over 10 years. They want this to be the last year of furloughs.
“I don't know that they'll listen,” Sheehan said. “I do know if we do nothing, we'll get nothing.”