WASHINGTON -- First there was a two-year pay freeze. Now furloughs loom, as federal agencies make personnel costs a prime target for across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect last week. The result: anxiety and low morale in a workforce often envied for its job security.
"It would certainly put a strain on things," said Jonathan Schweizer, 61, an environmental engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago who could be forced to take up to 13 days of unpaid leave this year. "I'd probably have to run up some credit card debt or defer maintenance on my home."
Government agencies vary widely in how they are dealing with the "sequester," as the automatic cuts are called, according to labor unions that represent federal workers. Federal workers could face seven days of furloughs at the Housing and Urban Development Department, while Homeland Security personnel might see twice that number.
More than half of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers could be furloughed during the next six months. The federal government is the country's single largest employer, with its employees making up about 1.2 percent of the nation's workforce.
"A lot of people think federal employees are fat-cat bureaucrats in Washington, but they don't realize more than 85 percent of these workers live outside of D.C.," said Tim Kauffman, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees.
AFGE, which represents more than 600,000 federal workers, is trying to keep track of all the different furlough plans as their members face the prospect of lost wages during mandatory time off without pay and growing frustration about getting work done.
It seems the federal workforce is under constant attack these days, particularly from Republican lawmakers who want to shrink government and contend federal employees are overpaid with more generous benefits compared to the private sector. Even President Barack Obama supported the pay freeze, though he has issued an executive order that will give workers a 0.5 percent cost-of-living raise set for April.
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.
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."