New Castle News

February 27, 2013

Sequester to affect prisons, National Guard

John Finnerty
CNHI

HARRISBURG — About 3,500 employees of the federal bureau of prisons in Pennsylvania received notice they will likely have to take a 10 percent pay cut.

This will be done by working reduced hours beginning in April and continuing until the end of September, according to a union representative. A notice sent to the union indicates all affected employees would need to take 14 unpaid days off.

The top general in the Pennsylvania National Guard said that while the Pentagon has directed 800,000 civilian employees be furloughed, the National Guard will probably be able to absorb the spending cuts without laying off any staff. Other state agencies said Monday they are still trying to determine what the cuts would mean. A Department of Education spokesman said any cuts affecting schools would not kick in until the summer.

The sequester will cut more than $300 billion from the Bureau of Prisons’ budget. In a Feb. 1 letter to Rep. Barbara Mikulski obtained by Forbes Magazine, Attorney General Eric Holder warned sequester cuts would force federal prisons to go into full or partial lockdowns in an attempt to protect staff and inmates.

Pennsylvania is home to 13 federal prison facilities, housing more than 11,000 inmates. Three of the prisons are penitentiaries, meaning they deal with high-security prisoners and the Lewisburg penitentiary operates as a “special management unit” meaning it deals with prisoners who have been identified as behavioral risks. In the special management unit, inmates can spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells.

The cut in funding will only aggravate security concerns in a federal system already straining from over-crowding, said Phil Glover, Northeast regional vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing federal prison workers.

Glover, a guard at the federal correctional institution at Loretto near Johnstown, said that facility, while classified as low-security, houses 400 to 500 “medium security” inmates because of over-crowding at the higher-security facilities.

On top of the security concerns associated with reducing the hours of prison employees, the move only aggravates the financial strain as workers must deal with a 10 percent pay cut after going with a wage freeze for the past three years, Glover said.

The median salary for a federal prison guard is $53,000, meaning the 14 furlough days would cost each guard about $2,850.

“The thing that amazes us is that some members of our Congressional delegation seem to think it’s not a big deal,” Glover said, pointing to news articles quoting Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who has repeatedly argued the sequester would be good for the country.

While the bureau of prisons braces for furloughs, the National Guard may be able to absorb the sequester cuts without laying off civilian staff.

Speaking to the Pennsylvania Senate appropriations committee Monday, Gen. Wesley Craig said the defense department determines how much money is allocated to the National Guard. But, Craig said he has the authority to make personnel decisions. The defense department has indicated the federal government expects the military to absorb 13 percent spending cuts by furloughing 800,000 civilian employees one day a week beginning in April and continuing through the next 22 weeks. Nationally, these would translate into a $5 billion savings.

For the Pennsylvania National Guard, the move would affect 1,778 civilian employees. But Craig said he believes the National Guard can achieve the savings required under sequestration by making other adjustments.

“I have no intention of furgloughing unless I have to,” Craig told the Senate committee. “I can pay the 13 percent.”

After the hearing, Craig said the National Guard can absorb the reduction because of a hiring freeze that has the Guard working with about 50 employees fewer than it is approved to have.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)