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.
A self-employed, small business owner calling the agency’s hotline to check on the deadline for second-quarter estimated taxes got a recording saying, “Due to the current budget situation, all IRS offices are closed on Friday, May 24.” The tax deadlines are unaffected.
HUD furloughed nearly its entire staff of more than 8,400 employees, closed the agency’s headquarters in Washington and shut down about 80 field offices.
That meant no walk-in housing counseling services at HUD offices to help people wanting to buy homes, refinance or avoid foreclosure. The furloughs also created delays for developers and municipalities needing technical assistance or approval of housing projects, officials said.
At the Labor Department, spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander said 437 employees out of about 16,500 were furloughed. She said the layoffs were negotiated between supervisors and employees to have the least possible impact on the agency’s operations.
Furloughs also hit the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget and the Interior Department.
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.
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.
The EPA’s decision to post job openings after sequestration began angered union officials who argued the agency should be using any available money to reduce the number of furlough days instead of hiring new employees.
Acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe informed agency employees in an April 9 memo that the agency would “limit new hires to only those that are critically needed.” But representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees said several of the posted openings were for budget analysts, environmental and chemical engineers and other positions they considered to be nonessential.
EPA said in an emailed statement that it was allowing limited hiring, subject to budget constraints, in order to fill personnel gaps in priority areas that would place a burden on existing staff if left vacant.
John O’Grady, president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago, left a protest on his voice mail.
“I will be furloughed on Friday the 24th thanks to this Congress and this administration,” O’Grady’s message said. “I don’t appreciate it. I will remember this in November. Leave a message if you care to. I will not respond until I get back into the office on Tuesday the 28th.
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 Interior Department said more than 13,000 people were being furloughed, including all 767 employees of the U.S. Park Police. That number includes Chief Teresa Chambers, who along with other employees must take three unpaid days by June 1.
The furloughs had been expected to continue through the summer tourist season but will now end June 1, because the agency was able to find other savings to offset mandatory cuts, the National Park Service said Friday. The Park Service oversees the Park Police, which patrols national parkland in three urban areas: Washington, New York and San Francisco.
An additional 8,500 employees of the U.S. Geological Survey and 4,100 employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also face furloughs, although they have not yet begun.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said cuts to the Interior budget “push us back in time to funding levels we last saw in 2006.”
The department has frozen hiring, eliminated seasonal positions and cut back on programs and services, including visiting hours at national parks. Jewell called those steps essential in order to maintain the department’s core mission to serve the public.
Even so, the cuts “are not sustainable, as these actions which are eroding our workforce, shrinking our summer field season and deferring important work cannot be continued in future years without further severe consequences to our mission,” she said.
At HUD, some telephone hotline services run by outside contractors providing housing counseling services to the public were still operating on Friday, including the Federal Housing Administration Resource Center. But callers needing more specialized assistance might have needed to call back once HUD offices re-open on Tuesday after Memorial Day.
HUD plans to shut its offices and furlough workers for seven days spread out over the summer because of the budget cuts. The furlough days will either precede a federal holiday or be on a Friday or Monday.
“When selecting its furlough days, HUD did so in a way in which impacts to the mission of the agency and to the general public would be minimized,” said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman.
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.