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Sequester could upend lives of federal workers

President Barack Obama (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) take part in a ceremony honoring the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks on February 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama and Republican congressional leaders are still trying to find a solution to avert sequester cuts that could threaten wages for federal employees.

Erika Townes is the breadwinner for her family of five.

Erika Townes will have to juggle bills if she has to take unpaid leave because of sequestration.

Octavia Hall is president of the American Federation of Government Employees office at Andrews Air Force Base.

We're just a day away from the sequester -- the $85 billion worth of  federal spending cuts due to kick in Friday.  Unless Washington changes its mind, some federal workers stand to lose as much as 20 percent of their pay.

Erika Townes is a nurse at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. She makes less than $50,000 a year, and has been fighting foreclosure. So when Townes heard she might have to take unpaid leave one day a week because of sequestration, her first thought was, "Will I keep my house? What bills will I be able to pay?"

“With the sequestration, now we’re talking about full-on juggling," Townes says. "Let me put something on this, let me put something on that.”

Ironically, Townes could lose her job if she runs up too much debt, trying to make up for the sequester pay cut. Her job requires a security clearance. She has to maintain a certain credit rating to keep her clearance and her job.

“The Department of Defense is not going to say, oh well, you know, sequester, that’s OK," she explains. "That’s not how it works.”

Since borrowing could put their jobs in jeopardy, Defense Department workers will have to turn to other sources of aid if they’re forced to take unpaid leave. The union office on Andrews Air Force base has prepared packets of information on local shelters, food banks and counseling services.

Octavia Hall, president of the local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, says the sequester would lop 20 percent off of her members’ paychecks when their take-home pay is barely enough to cover their bills, as it is.

“Take home, $900," she says.  "For two weeks. So cancel 20 percent off of that.”

That 20 percent pay cut would ripple through the economy. Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University, says the sequestration cuts would shave one percentage point off of economic growth this year. He says an economy that’s been staggering anyway will be punch drunk after sequestration.

“You can have a good time without getting smashed," he says.  "And the sequester is getting smashed and it will have enormous short term consequences that won’t achieve any purpose.”

Fuller says those consequences won’t be felt immediately if sequestration kicks in. Federal workers have to be given at least 30 days notice of any unpaid leave.

Erika Townes says that’ll give her time to think up a plan B, and maybe start looking for a second job. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Erika Townes is the breadwinner for her family of five.

Erika Townes will have to juggle bills if she has to take unpaid leave because of sequestration.

Octavia Hall is president of the American Federation of Government Employees office at Andrews Air Force Base.

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We have figured that this is closer to losing an entire month's pay (two pay periods) when all is said and done.

Most of the major media coverage seems to focus on "the catastrophic problems threatened by the looming sequester." Please! The problem is not the sequester, the problem is that our federal government continually and systematically spends money it does not have, as though they can just issue themselves more as needed. (It would be bad enough if issuing money only meant "we'll print up some paper," but it is worse, because in Fed-Speak issuing money means "borrowing money at interest from the Federal Reserve, money we honestly can never hope to repay, so we can then print up some paper.")

We have allowed our government to consume all that it can, and the more it feeds, the more it needs. If our federal government finally has it's own recession, we'll all be more than fine. It is long, long overdue.

Here's how a "sequester" works in my world: if I spend all the money in my checking account and I also exhaust my lines of credit, I have to stop spending. My checkbook is sequestered. It is no more complicated than that.

Our federal government, though, believes it operates in another world, under a different set of rules. In that world, every budget is justifiable, mission-critical, and worthy of increase next fiscal year.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It's laughable that we've allowed our lawmakers to become so lax in planning and budgeting. But we did. So now, the safety valve installed to protect us in case we weren't paying attention-- that valve is about to trip. Good! That is what we want to happen.

We can easily afford a 10% cut in federal spending-- not just temporarily, but permanently-- and there will still be plenty left over for critical services, discretionary funds, and yes, even enough left over for waste.

I empathize with people who will feel the immediate pain of a diminished paycheck or a reduced government service. I'll be one of them. I also know we will be a stronger, more stable, and ultimately more affluent nation when more people get their paychecks and services from the private sector, not from the federal government. And that will be better for all of us, and each of us.

Why is it that when the federal government has a budget constraint they give workers time off, but when we have a budget constraint in the real economy we just do the same job with less pay and/or benefits? It's like the rest of the economy has had to make adjustments because of the recession we've been in for the past 5 years but for government workers it's business as usual?

If you don't think you're being paid fairly you have the right to go to a job where you will be. If you aren't able to find that job, well you're already being paid fairly.

She is not being "given a day off" she is being furlouged, without pay, one day per week. Furlough would be the Gov equivalent of a lay-off. As for doing the same job, with less pay, I see nothing here to indicate that the number of patients at the military hosoital was reduced by the same 20%. So on the 4 days a week she does work she will still have to do all the work she previously did, and cover the work of any other federal worker on unpaid furlough. On the fifth day, when she does not work or get paid I can promise you she is not lounging on the beach somewhere.

Your solution that DoD nurses should just quit their jobs and go somewhere else to be paid "fairly" is pretty hard on the servicemen and veterans she cares for in day-to-day life.

Regarding your comment that 5 years of recession has just been business as usual for government workers, remember that GS workers have not had a cost-of-living adjustment for the past three years and are now facing a 20% pay cut that could last for the next 5 months. I seems to me she will be substantially behind where she was five years ago.

If you really believe that Government works have it so cushy, turn your advice around and quit the private sector. Go to work for the feds. But pay close attention to the part of the story about being required to get and keep a security clearance. You will have to stop smoking certain substances to qualify.

Amen nwade,

My husband works for the federal government and we struggle just like everyone else to pay our bills. I don't know why there is this miscomception that we make sooo much money. We are firmly in the middle class category and live paycheck to paycheck like most poeple. We are constantly the first ones chozen for wage and hiring freezes. Sick of hearing all this crap about how well off federal workers are ! !

So she has 3 day weekends. People in that situation can do things to make up for the lost income like not paying for child care, or doing things themselves during that time that they otherwise would have paid others to do for them (repairs around the house, etc.). They should be cutting the pay of federal workers instead of cutting their hours. If they find that they can't find enough people to do the work, even in this recession, then they can start talking about raises.

The point about DoD quitting wouldbe that if this actually happened in appreciable numbers they would hire replacement at market prices.

The private economy has seen reductions in pay and benefits, we need to see some shared sacrifice and a balanced approach with cuts in government.

I've worked for government and private and I can tell you that you work way harder for private employers and your position is much more dependant on your performance. There is alot more socializing around the water cooler when yoour employer is uncle sam. There are people that simply wouldn't have a job if their only option was private employment because they have no hussle, and then they say they are paid competatively to private equivalents.

Under the rules, an employee CANNOT take their unpaid day off in conjunction with regular time off (i.e. weekends).

Pay cuts are never easy, as many of us have experienced. Part of the broadcast included an individual who made $50,000 per year, since this was a Federal government employee I assume they also receive benefits. I work with 49 others at a small manufacturing company. No one here makes $50,000 per year and most support families on this. Our pay was cut by 10% two years ago for a period of 18 months. Fortunately, we have recently gone back to our normal pay.

Maddog, I agree that pay cuts are never easy and I'm glad your situation is improving, or seems to be, but try to keep a few things in mind with this story.

1st - She's a nurse making, "less than" $50,000/year which is on the low end of pay for nurses. The average salary for nurses nation wide is in the mid 60's. Depending on education and specialty, it's not uncommon to find nurses in private hospitals making 90-100,000/year.

2nd - She's living in the Washington DC area which has some of the highest costs of living in the country.

3rd - She's facing a 20% cut. I imagine you realize how tough a 10% cut was, now imagine twice that.

I'm not trying to make lite of your situation or make her out to be a martyr, I just think the comparison isn't a good one. None-the-less, I'm very happy your back to your normal salary because it's a sign things are improving. Now I just hope your company doesn't have any govt contracts that might be cancelled or cut back because of the sequestration.

Taylor, her situation is simple, quite her unstable low paying job for the government and go get that job you mentioned that pays in the mid 60's or even 90-100k. My instinct here is that there is a good reason she hasn't already done so. She may lack some qualification or characteristic required in private employment or when you add in the fringe benefits she may already be making more than her contemporaries in the private economy.

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