Furloughs: On the job, but out of work

Air traffic controllerswork in the control tower at Opa-locka airport in Opa-locka, Fla. 

Remember the sequester? All that back and forth over the federal budget that had people in Washington foaming at the mouth and had the rest of us -- well, at least many Americans -- falling asleep. This week, the sequester was back in the news as some federal employees were forced to take a few days per month of unpaid leave -- furloughs, they're called. But as the week went on, it was kind of hard figuring out who was off the clock and who wasn't -- not to mention how things were affecting ordinary working stiffs. But one thing was clear: The nation's airports were hit hard by the furloughs of air traffic controllers -- so much so that members of Congress managed to rouse themselves to do something about it.

Congress moved quickly to end air traffic controller furloughs, which were causing widespread airline flight delays. The FAA says there were at least 863 flights delayed one day this week. A number of federal agencies at this point have received some kind of reprieve, including employees at the Justice Department and some workers at the Agriculture Department, like meat inspectors.

Effects of the sequester, though, will still be seen in some national parks and the cancellation of various air shows. And workers at various agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department, have already started their unpaid leave. One question mark is the Defense Department, where some civilian workers could still get furloughed. And even though members of Congress won't be furloughed, some lawmakers say they will take voluntary pay cuts.

We wanted to see what it's like for employees who have to deal with furloughs, so we checked in with Ron Speir. He's a federal employee with the Department of Defense who lives in Richmond Hill, Ga. He wrote to us back in February asking for help with budgeting for sequester-related furloughs, which have still have not yet taken effect. And we called up Kevin Livingston. He's a California state employee who was hired during a recent spate of government furloughs. He discusses adjusting his budget and spending habits working as a furloughed employee.

"[Anxiety] builds slowly and it hits you very quickly," says Speir, who might be hit with a 20 percent reduction of income working one less day a week.

"It's hard," adds Livingston. "The last three years is like being in a coma almost. I was really financially strapped down. The good thing is I'm not at work, I'm spending time with the family."

Click play on the audio player above to hear advice on how to cope with the fiscal uncertainty of a pay cut. Plus, hear how Speir plans to deal with being furloughed and what Livingston's financial situation is like now.

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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I was somewhat disappointed because the program didn't talk about one of the most logical ways to hand furlough days. So instead of having that money, you have the time instead. So when before you would have paid for services to be performed on your behalf, say to have a guy paint your fence, now you take your new day off and paint your own fence. Or before you would have saved up and gone on a one week vacation somewhere else, now you have long weekends to enjoy at home.

This also brings up another sore point which is that in the private economy you don;t get furlough days when budgets are tight, you get a cut in compensation. So if the jobs that civil servants are performing really need to be done, they should be working the same hours after the cuts as before, but just at a reduced compensation level like the tax payers that are paying the salaries of the civil servants.

I was very disappointed that your story on furloughs did not talk about the programs that didn't get any consideration for furlough relief from congress before their break such as Meals on Wheels for the elderly. Why only discuss those groups with big K Street influence? The poor in this country deserve voices, even yours!

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