Furlough Friday: Unpaid day off for many in government

The furloughs have frustrated many federal employees facing other upcoming days without pay.

WASHINGTON — No one answered the tax-help hotline at the IRS on Friday. And you could forget about getting advice on avoiding foreclosures at the 80 Housing and Urban Development field offices nationwide.

It was "furlough Friday." Roughly 5 percent of the federal workforce — 115,000 people at six major agencies — were told not to show up as the government dealt with the continuing effects of the sequester spending cuts.

The good news for many federal workers: a four-day Memorial Day weekend. The bad news: no pay for the day.

The across-the-board budget reductions, the result of Washington's failure to work out a long-term, deficit-cutting plan in November 2011, essentially shut down some government agencies, though it had a negligible impact on others.

The IRS, embroiled in a scandal over agents targeting Tea Party groups, got a day of quiet. Its offices were closed with more than 90,000 employees furloughed on Friday, one of five days the agency plans to shut down this year to save money.

FURLOUGH FRIDAY UNWELCOME

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, dismissed any suggestion that the extra day was welcome news to anyone.

"'Furlough Friday' is a disgrace to our nation," Cox said in a statement. "Let no one believe for a moment that this is some kind of four-day weekend or holiday for federal employees forced out of work without pay."

He called it "a day of shame for the lawmakers and administration officials who allowed sequester and furloughs to occur."

The automatic cuts that kicked in March 1 have had a disparate effect on individual agencies and their workers. The State Department, for example, says it can handle a $400 million cut without forcing employees to take unpaid leave. The Pentagon, on the other hand, decided to furlough about 680,000 civilian employees for 11 days through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

President Barack Obama has pressed Congress to reverse the automatic cuts, but many Republicans have shown little inclination to do so. Lawmakers see the broad reductions, recently estimated at $81 billion, as a surefire way to trim the federal deficit despite the outcry from defense hawks in Congress that the military cuts are too painful.

FURTHER CONGRESSIONAL ACTION

Congress did step in last month to undo furloughs for air traffic controllers after a week of coast-to-coast flight delays, and lawmakers have found money for meat inspectors.

The furloughs have frustrated many government employees facing several days without pay.

In addition to Friday, the IRS plans to close its offices and furlough employees on June 14, July 5, July 22 and Aug. 30. The agency said no tax returns will be processed on those days.

The furloughs have frustrated many in Congress, too, especially lawmakers in the Washington area who represent a disproportionate number of federal employees.

"Congress has failed the 115,000 federal workers being furloughed today, many of whom have children in college, mortgages and car payments. Our federal workers did not cause this mess. It's unfair they must bear the brunt of our dysfunction," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va.

There was another reminder on Friday of the budget cuts. Missing from the promotion ceremony and pageantry at the U.S. Naval Academy where Obama delivered the commencement address was the Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic team. Budget cuts led to the cancellation of their program.