GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 4, 2013

NOAA backs off forced worker furloughs

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The four-day work furloughs that had been in the immediate future for the 200 employees at the Northeast regional offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Gloucester -- along with those of the other 12,300 NOAA employees nationwide — have been canceled.

In announcing the change, the agency said it had found other ways to meet its federal sequestration budget cut target for reduced spending, according to an internal email to employees which did not explain how much would be saved — or how.

The sequestration program, a formulaic set of spending cuts, was the alternative to failed budget and spending negotiations in 2012 between the Obama White House and Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House.

The NOAA Fishery employees in the Gloucester office are mostly professionals with a mean salary in excess of $50,000 a year, according to NOAA, which would mean the projected four-day furloughs would have trimmed spending by more than $120,000. NOAA Fisheries was assigned cuts of $73 million by the sequestration formula which required cuts in spending of $85 billion across the federal budget in the 2013 federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

The decision by Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan to cancel the furloughs of all 12,500 NOAA employees was made under pressure from Congress. That request was rooted in the deadly tornadoes of recent weeks, and Congress’ desire to avoid furloughing the agency’s 4,618 National Weather Service employees.

In an April memo to staff, Sullivan said the furlough plan would not risk mission critical work by employees of the National Weather Service. Rather than single out Weather Service workers, Sullivan then dropped the furlough plans for all NOAA personnel.

Sullivan announced her cancellation of all NOAA furloughs in an email at 11:30 p.m. last Friday. The text was published in the Washington Post’s weather blog early Saturday morning.

The cancellation of the furloughs came on the heels of the filing last week with the Senate Appropriations Committee of a petition signed by more than 150 members or allies of the fishing industry urging the permanent closing of NOAA’s Northeast regional office in Gloucester and the reallocation of savings for relief of the groundfishery’s “disaster” so declared by the acting commerce secretary eight months ago as catch limits were being radically reduced.

Despite urging from Gov. Deval Patrick and Rep. John Tierney, neither the Obama administration nor Congress has requested any disaster relief funding.

In late April, the approximately 200 employees of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service employed in the Northeast Regional Office here were informed that they could expect to be furloughed for four days no earlier than June, according to a statement to the Times by Allison McHale, special assistant to Regional Administrator John Bullard.

NOAA’s parent cabinet agency, the Department of Commerce, estimated in a February letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that sequestration savings within the department would be $551 million, but would come at a high cost and delay launching a new generation of weather satellites.

”Forced reductions in funding for fishery stock assessments, at-sea observers, and support for the regional fishery management councils jeopardize NOAA’s ability to open fisheries that are economically important to our coastal communities, such as ground fish in New England ..,” Rebecca Blank, then the acting commerce secretary, wrote. “In addition, with these reductions in data and support for scientific analysis, NOAA will be forced to manage fisheries throughout the Nation more conservatively, which could mean smaller quotas and earlier closures as protections against overfishing.

”The economic impacts of these measures are unknowable at this point, but could be significant,” Blank wrote.

She has since left office, however, and pending the confirmation by the Senate of President Obama’s nominee as secretary — Chicago real estate businesswoman Penny Pritzger — Cameron Kerry of Massachusetts, NOAA’s counsel and the brother of Secretary of State John Kerry, is acting secretary.

Sullivan’s email said she was “pleased to report that this evening the Department of Commerce transmitted to Congress a new sequestration plan. This was possible because of an increase in flexibility in how we use our funding within the organization.”

In her email Friday night, Sullivan told employees that “for weeks, we have been working diligently to present a plan that represented the best way to ensure that we met these goals within the financial resources we have been given. When we initially received our appropriation in late March, some of our colleagues were facing up to 10 days of furlough, while others were facing up to 20. This was neither acceptable nor executable.

”Therefore,” she wrote, “we looked for every other option possible to manage through these serious fiscal challenges, including the proposal we have been communicating with all of you this past month. Because of this new development we are cancelling our intent to furlough all 12,000 of our employees,” Sullivan wrote.

“I’m glad the administration has worked to end furloughs for (NOAA) keep our weather forecasters, coast surveyors, fishery managers and essential NOAA employees on the job,” she wrote. “But to end the furlough, other important priorities like improving satellite weather forecasting and constructing new vessels to replace NOAA’s aging fleet had to be put on hold. These choices show that Congress needs to take action to end sequester now.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.