Federal agencies with RTP presences plan for federal budget cuts

Mar. 18, 2013 @ 07:13 PM

Automatic federal budget cuts could mean furloughs starting in April for employees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has more than 1,000 employees in the Research Triangle Park.

And at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a Research Triangle Park-based institute of the National Institutes of Health that’s also a large employer here, officials looked to help absorb the cuts by limiting hiring to only essential employees, according to a union representative.

Those are two ways federal agencies with offices in the RTP planned to respond to the sequester, the automatic budget cuts approved in 2011 as a tool to get Congressional leaders to act on deficit reduction. The sequester included $85 billion in cuts to fiscal year 2013 spending starting March 1, half of that to defense programs.

The EPA, based in Washington D.C., employs 1,306 employees at its Research Triangle Park campus. In an email to employees Feb. 26, Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said the agency was planning administrative furloughs for all of its employees as well as “significant” cuts to non-personnel spending.

Letters notifying EPA employees of proposed furloughs were to be sent out March 4, and the furloughs were not anticipated begin until April, according to Perciasepe’s email. The plan was to include unpaid absences for employees of up to 13 days until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

However, agency officials planned to review the EPA’s budget status in June after the first four furlough days to see if there is be a way to reduce the number of additional furlough hours required.

Another employer in the Research Triangle Park impacted by the sequester is the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health that conducts environmental health research.

The institute employs 1,374 people including federal workers, contractors and research fellows, Robin Mackar, a spokeswoman for the institute, said in an email. She said the majority of those workers are in the RTP. The institute is “carefully reviewing” its budget in light of sequestration, she said.

Bill Jirles, a program analyst at the NIEHS, is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2923 that represents about 185 employees at the institute. He said the NIEHS has looked to absorb federal budget cuts by limiting hiring to only essential employees.

Jirles said the institute has been under a “soft hiring freeze” for several years that was also expected to help absorb the cuts. Jirles also said the institute is looking to aggressively limit employee travel.

 “I have also heard that managers have been asked to forecast cuts to their budget by 5 percent to 20 percent, which would include cuts to such things as equipment, travel, training, etc.,” he said in an email.

Renate Myles, senior press officer for the National Institutes of Health, said in an email that the agency is still in the planning process to address sequestration, and that plan is not yet finalized.

“These cuts need to be made by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2013), and would need to be applied to future budgets unless something changes,” she said.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a recorded Feb. 25 conference call that the cut from sequestration to the Bethesda, Md.-based agency totaled about $1.6 billion. He said the cut was coming in the last seven months of its fiscal year.

The agency would be unable to give out “hundreds and hundreds” of grants, Collins said. He added that each of the individual 27 institutes and centers that are part of the National Institutes of Health were required to take the same 5.1 percent cut.

“Each of the institute directors does have the flexibility to decide how to spread the pain with grants and contracts and intramural program(s), but they’re not going to be any easy answers….,” he said in the call.

Collins also expressed optimism that the federal budget would help to mitigate some of the effects of sequestration. The federal government has been operating on a continuing budget resolution set to expire March 27.

“I will remain hopeful, until somebody tells me it’s not possible, that…that budget decision will in some way remediate what otherwise will be very painful consequences,” he said.