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Furlough fight takes turn as unions turn to little-known review board

| Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Unions are mounting a new attack on the Obama administration's decision to furlough nearly one in two federal workers, rallying thousands of their members to appeal the unpaid days off to a little-known review board.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, almost 6,000 appeals had flooded the offices of the small, understaffed Merit Systems Protection Board — about equal to the number of cases it normally handles in a year.

And while merit board judges typically hear challenges from civil servants who have been demoted, fired or retaliated against for whistle-blowing, the overwhelming majority of the recent petitions are from Defense Department civilians. Starting on July 8, 650,000 Defense employees took the first of 11 furlough days required as part of the $85 billion in budget cuts across government known as sequestration.

“The message here is, we're not going to just roll over and take this lying down,” said David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. “We're just getting started.”

The group and other unions are holding workshops across the country to instruct members how to file appeals that seek to cancel the furloughs and award back pay. Several unions have asked the merit board to consider some appeals as class-action cases.

In addition to Defense employees, workers have appealed from the Internal Revenue Service; the departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development and Interior; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and the Environmental Protection Agency. In all, about 775,000 federal workers face furloughs of four to 15 days before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said it is up to Congress to replace the sequester.

“Because of the sequestration, agencies are being forced to make very difficult decisions, including the use of furloughs, as a means to achieve the spending levels required by Congress,” spokesman Steve Posner said in a statement.

Some employees are claiming that their job responsibilities are comparable to those of colleagues who were exempted from furloughs; others say their agency discriminated against them. But for the most part, they are arguing that the furloughs are adverse actions the government took without sufficient cause to make its mandated budget cuts.

The agencies could have made deeper cuts to programs and contracts instead, the employees say.

The merit board is scrambling to assign each of the cases to its approximately 50 administrative judges. Already understaffed because it is not filling vacancies to meet its own sequestration cuts, the board is overwhelmed with appeals. On Thursday alone, 575 petitions arrived at the board's eight field offices, compared with about 20 suspensions, demotions, removals and other challenges to personnel actions that federal employees file on a typical day.

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