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.

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