GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 22, 2013

Fed cuts to mean NOAA furloughs

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The $85 billion federal budget sequestration — a stopgap solution to the federal spending cut impasse between the White House and Democratic allies in Congress and conservative Republicans — will force a temporary and likely brief shutdown sometime after May of NOAA’s Northeast regional office, which employs about 200 people in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park.

Globally, NOAA has 12,500 employees, including hundreds involved in weather forecasting.

The furloughs and the dates have not been finalized, said Allison McHale, a special assistant to Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard. A NOAA source in Gloucester said the likely duration of the furloughs was four days. Who would be furloughed and whether some employees would be bypassed has not been announced, the source said.

“Continued fiscal uncertainty and tight budgets have required that many government agencies, including NOAA, make tough choices,” NOAA’s director of communications, Ciaran Clayton, said in an email Friday. “Unfortunately, after much serious deliberation, in order to help address current budget shortfalls, we are moving forward with union consultations in order to implement furloughs across the agency,”

“When looking at the budget situation for fiscal 2013, we faced some serious challenges. While we have implemented options to help offset this, including a hiring freeze, unfortunately, furloughs are necessary to help close the gaps,” she said. “NOAA has taken steps to ensure that this step will not impact life- and property-saving missions, or any other critical products or services the American public has come to rely upon.”

“Agencies are responsible for identifying the employees affected by administrative furloughs based on budget conditions, funding sources, mission priorities (including the need to perform emergency work involving the safety of human life or protection of property), and other mission-related factors,” Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said in a March 8 memo to all employees of the department, which includes NOAA, and its subsidiary the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The layoffs have rippled across components of the federal workforce who are not considered essential for national security or essential domestic services. The cuts are also expected to put much of the White House workforce out of work for an undetermined number of days as the federal government accrues the $85 billion in budget cuts that were programmed by the 122th Congress to leverage a budget agreement last year.

NOAA’s Northeast regional office is one of eight regional offices established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which declared a 200-mile wide exclusive economic zone beginning at the three-mile limit of state waters. Along with the Magnuson Act, NOAA’s Northeast regional office employees enforce the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts and other federal laws and statutes.

The Gloucester Northeast office’s oversight extends from the Canadian border and the transboundry line that delineates the Canadian and U.S. parts of Georges Bank — one of the Altantic’s great marine and aquatic nurseries – all the way south to the Carolinas.

“Nothing has been approved,” said McHale Friday. “The furloughs will not happen until after May.”

Blank said in her memo that at least 30 days notice would be given before employees are furloughed. She said the agency needed to pare 5 percent of its budget to comply with the sequestration directive.

The chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, said NOAA’s announcement of imminent furloughs is the latest example as to “why sequester is bad policy.

“These furloughs are a real consequence of sequester that puts family livelihoods into jeopardy for over 12,200 people who work hard every day to issue severe weather warnings quickly, map safe maritime waterways, and protect our fishery economies,” Mikulski said. “I am especially concerned that these furloughs will start in June at the beginning of hurricane season and the onset of strong summer storms. America has experienced several severe weather events in recent years and scientists suggest that severe weather will continue.

“We owe it to our communities to have a weather service that is ready for duty,” she said, “from the coastal states that depend on accurate hurricane forecasts to the interior states that depend on timely tornado warnings.”

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