Sequester Expected to Bring Harm Beyond Staffing Cuts on National, Local Levels

PHOTO: A jack-hammer operator from New Yorks Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, removes asphalt from a street, Jan. 17, 2013, to fix a leaking water pipe damaged during Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaways in the Queens borough of New York.
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At the Environmental Protection Agency, employees received emails Monday spelling out exactly how their pay and time in the office will be cut as a direct result of the sequester.

It was just another item in a long list of government outposts that are sacrificing workers to satisfy the budget cuts included in sequestration. But officials in health care, agriculture and defense warn the damage done does not stop at lower pay for federal workers.

READ MORE: Sequester: What Will Happen, What Won't Happen and What We Don't Know

Government furloughs can't begin until April, as workers must receive 30 days' notice in most cases before losing time on the job, under federal employment guidelines from the Office of Personnel Management. But planned furloughs have cast a shadow of limited government capabilities over the agencies expecting workforce cuts.

With each EPA worker taking a mandatory, unpaid four days off between April 3 and June 1 -- to be re-evaluated and possibly lengthened to 13 days between now and the end of September, according to a letter from acting administrator Bob Perciasepe to all EPA workers -- that means reduced capabilities for the organization that tests air quality to tell city residents when there's too much smog to let children play outside.

As a result of sequestration, the EPA predicts it will cut 1,000 inspections of "toxic air emissions, water discharges, and other sources of pollution that can cause illnesses and even death."

READ MORE: Bring on the Cuts - Some Want the Sequester

EPA is also the group that must inspect cars to test their emissions standards before they go on the market. With fewer inspectors on the clock, the certification process for new vehicles will slow down, meaning auto companies will have to wait longer before putting out their latest models.

For those not worried about putting off purchasing a new car, consider another looming slowdown -- in the meatpacking industry.

Americans likely won't see meat and poultry shortages for a while -- but that's thanks, in part, to inspectors' lack of access to email.

Furloughs to Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors at USDA could force meat and poultry plants to stop production -- with no inspectors to approve products, they can't be sold -- but Tuesday Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that those furloughs probably won't happen until later this year, with a drawn-out notification process stopping them from happening right away.

READ MORE: When Does the Sequester Go Into Effect?

"This week we will send out notices to the union reps that a furlough is possible, and one of the challenges is that not every one of our workers in this particular area has email, so we actually have to hand-deliver a letter or written notification to those employees. That has to be followed up ... with oral conferences to take place with any employee who requests an oral confirmation -- that will happen at the local level," Vilsack said.

After all employees are notified, Vilsack said, USDA will negotiate with union representatives over how the furloughs will be implemented.

But if furloughs do happen, Vilsack warned their impact could be particularly severe.

That's because furloughs will be concentrated over just a few months this year. Inspectors will miss 11 to 12 days each between now and Sept. 30, Vilsack predicted, and the longer USDA waits, meat and poultry producers could feel a more severe impact over a shorter timeframe.

USDA has already projected that food-safety will be particularly hard hit by furloughs, as 87 percent of that account's budget goes to food inspectors and "support" for inspectors.

For prison workers, labor cuts are an even more dramatic blow.

"Make no mistake: the sequester cuts will have a literal life-and-death impact on the thousands of corrections officers who are already working in dangerous conditions," Dale Deshotel, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, said in a statement emailed to ABC News. "Our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed -- a lethal combination that will only be exacerbated by the upcoming furloughs."

The Council of Prison Locals pointed to the story of a corrections officer who was killed last week while working as the only officer on duty with about 130 inmates. In response, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to allow guards at that facility to carry pepperspray.

READ MORE: Jindal to Obama: Stop Scaring the American Public

Perhaps the sequester's most talked-about effect, longer airport-security lines, has not yet materialized, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that wait times at some Customs entry points had increased 150 percent to 200 percent.

The Travel Security Administration (TSA) will not furlough workers immediately, but TSA has warned that a hiring freeze and limitations on overtime will gradually snowball into longer waits at airports.

The FAA told ABC News Friday that it intends to send out furlough notices to its employees. This means that beginning in a month, there will be fewer air traffic controllers in towers and radar rooms helping our national airspace work. Fewer flights will be able to take off and land, and the traveling public and the many businesses that rely on our air travel system will be affected by the delays.

Worse, the FAA intends to close many towers around the country that provide critically important safety and efficiency services to aviation, keeping our system vibrant, growing and crucial to our economy.

READ MORE: Obama Enlists Governors to Help Get Sequester Deal

The White House announced Tuesday it was cancelling all public tours as a result of sequester staff reductions, prompting criticism from Republican members of Congress.

Cutting staff is not an option for some organizations hit by the sequester.

Steven Summer, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association, said hospitals will be careful about how they implement staff reductions, cognizant of the fact that short staffing can lead to poorer quality of care.

But all hospitals are facing a 2 percent cut to Medicare payments for services -- on top of cuts they already took as a trade off with the implementation of Obama's healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

"This postpones the kinds of decisions we need to make to transform the healthcare system," Summer told ABC News. "All those decisions related to [the ACA] have to wait until we have the stability in the system, so we can implement some of those changes in the payment system."

And in rural Colorado, Summer predicted, small hospitals that already operate on a tight budget might have to close their doors.

Fears looming in Colorado's health care industry are not unique to the Rocky Mountain state.

Marie Watteau of the American Hospital Association said hospitals across the country have been preparing for these cuts in different ways.

"Small and rural hospitals are especially vulnerable because they have fewer resources," Watteau told ABC News in an email Tuesday. "These cuts come on top of cuts hospitals are already facing. Hospitals will have to look at all of their services and evaluate their ability to continue to meet the needs for their patients and communities."

As more departments release plans for how to deal with the cuts, it seems local communities will each feel them differently, depending on the industries and resources in the area.

READ MORE: White House Previews Local Impact of Sequester

The Oregon Employment Department announced Tuesday that it will cut federal emergency unemployment benefits by 10.7 percent starting at the end of the month.

Labor Department officials have told ABC News that the beginning of April is the earliest recipients would see cuts like this, but other states may hold off on the reductions until later in the year.

In Florida, there are fears that Americans with smaller paychecks will cut summer vacations out of their budgets. There are towns in the state where businesses depend on the revenue they get during those months, according to Chris McCarty, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at University of Florida.

If that's the case, McCarty said, hotels and restaurants might hold off on hiring, but they will have to find other ways to make up revenue, too.

"They can scale back employment, but you can't scale back some of your costs," McCarty told ABC News Friday. "Labor is the big part of a lot of it, but it's not all of it."

The state will also be sad to say goodbye to the Blue Angels, if sequester cuts persist, as will other states where they were slated to perform.

The Navy's air demonstration squadron has said it will cancel 28 performances, starting with one scheduled April 6 in Tampa, if nothing is done to offset sequestration.

For Florida State Sen. Don Gaetz that would be like losing part of his state's "civic religion."

"If someone you don't know gets furloughed from a job at a military base, that's something you read about in the newspaper," the Republican state senator said. "But if the Blue Angels are grounded, that's a highly visible symbol of government dysfunction."

ABC's Matt Hosford contributed to this report.

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