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Federal Workers Brace For Furloughs

The latest unemployment numbers offered even more bad news for government workers as federal employment, excluding the U.S. Postal Service, shrank by 4,200 jobs last month. That's the fifth straight month of cuts, which may reflect a trend towards greater belt-tightening.

Schweizer conceded that working for the federal government remains a lot more stable than other industries, but he said the comfort level has changed.

"We've definitely been squeezed financially," he said. "People have left and haven't been replaced. That puts more pressure on us as far as getting the job done and it certainly hurts morale in my office."

Some agencies, including the Justice Department, already have sent out formal furlough notices to workers indicating furloughs of up to 14 days could begin as soon as April. All furloughs are subject to 30-day notices and to bargaining with unions representing government workers.

While the unions can't stop the furloughs, they can try to ease the pain for employees by negotiating different times, allowing employees to swap days, or other changes. Unions are also trying to persuade agencies to make other cuts that don't affect worker pay, such as cutting government contracts with private companies.

The Social Security Administration, for example, says it hopes to avoid furloughs altogether, instead saving money by terminating more than 1,500 temporary and other workers and losing more than 5,000 other positions through attrition.

"In some cases, the agencies can figure out ways to slow down federal contracts instead of taking it out of federal personnel," said Patrick Lester, director of fiscal policy for the Center for Effective Government.

But there are limits on flexibility. "If they are largely personnel-driven, there's no way to avoid personnel-related cuts," Lester said.

Meat and poultry inspectors at the Agriculture Department initially were told they might be furloughed for 11 consecutive days between June and July, possibly leading to a meat supply shortage and higher prices. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack backed away from that at a House hearing this week, telling lawmakers that the furloughs would not be consecutive after all.

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