When sequestration was about to kick in, the Obama administration began a nearly across-the-board campaign to discuss the devastating impact the automatic cuts would have on agency operations.
At the center of these warnings stood employee furloughs: mandatory unpaid leave to help each department meet the lower budget caps that took effect March 1. Furloughs, combined with hiring freezes, would disrupt the proper functioning of the government, agency chiefs said, as fewer employees working fewer hours could not accomplish the same amount as a fully staffed workforce.
While many federal agencies have in fact moved forward with furloughs, and there remain countless examples of sequestration interfering with government operations, most major departments have reduced furlough days, or eliminated them altogether.
The earliest examples came from departments that told Congress they would have to furlough employees, but ended up backtracking. The Education and Justice departments fall into this category. The Agriculture, Transportation and Homeland Security departments all received authority to transfer funds between agency accounts, and were therefore able to cancel planned furloughs. The Commerce Department projected furloughs at its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only to cancel them in May.
The most significant example of furlough reductions has been the Defense Department. The Pentagon originally planned to furlough all 750,000 of its civilian employees for 22 days. It then used reprogramming to trim that number to 11 days, and more recently — through a series of cost-cutting measures and inter-service transfer of funds — reduced the days of unpaid leave to six. The furloughs are now estimated to affect about 650,000 Defense civilians.