Furloughs Plans Readied

The dreaded sequester that hangs like a dark cloud over US budgetmaking could go into effect by Monday, with harried air travelers among the first to feel its effects

FEWER airplane flights. And possible spot shortages of fresh meat and poultry. These are the two most visible effects that Americans are likely to feel should there be a money-saving furlough of federal employees.

The furloughs could go into effect as early as Monday if congressional and White House negotiators are unable to reach agreement by then on reducing America's budget deficit.

In that case, deep and automatic slashes in the federal budget would be required by law - the dreaded sequester mandated by the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Act. Rather than fire any employees, the federal government has opted to furlough many employees - having them stay home without pay on a regular schedule.

In many respects, Americans would not immediately notice the effects of such a furlough. Social Security checks would continue to be mailed, and in the same amounts; Medicare reimbursements would still be made; mail deliveries would continue as before, since the Postal Service is no longer a government agency.

But if no budget agreement is reached, the change most obvious to Americans will be an immediate reduction in airline flights - as early as Monday.

Plans call for air traffic controllers, already in short supply nationwide, to be furloughed one day a week, and for overtime to end. The combination would require a major decrease in the number of airplane flights daily, especially at peak hours.

``There would be at least a 25 to 30 percent decrease in the amount of air traffic each day,'' says John Thornton, senior director of legislative affairs of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Most affected in the first few days of a furlough: connecting flights, because lack of air traffic controllers may ground planes that travelers had counted on connecting up with.

At this writing, budget negotiators still have not given up seeking accord. And even if they fail, Congress and the White House independently are trying to forestall, if not all layoffs, then at least those of essential government personnel, including air traffic controllers.

Yet as this week hurried toward a close, pessimism and finger-pointing were on the rise in Washington.

Whether or not furloughs were in store, Washington was clearly preparing for them. Government agencies were making final plans to save the amount of money required of them by deciding on final furlough plans, which differed from agency to agency.

Most Washington experts think that before furloughs were in effect for very long political pressure would force both Congress and the White House into budgetary agreement.

But if the layoffs lasted more than two weeks, Americans would begin to see one of the consequences: less meat for sale in their local supermarkets.

That is because of the effect that these deep financial cuts would have on the section of the US Department of Agriculture that inspects meat and poultry processing plants in the United States. The department is planning to furlough all its meat inspectors for the entire week of Oct. 8, according to a department official.

Because federal law requires a meat inspector to be present whenever a meat or poultry processing plant is in operation, all packing and processing plants will have to close that week. Each week these plants process well over a billion pounds of meat and poultry, says John Knudsen of the American Meat Institute.

Something else no one is sure of is the so-called ``ripple effect.'' How many people will indirectly be hurt financially, and how seriously, by government furloughs? For instance, meat and poultry processing plants employ 360,000 workers, virtually all of whom can be expected to be laid off, without pay, for the Oct. 8 week, Mr. Knudsen says. In addition, one day's lost production in the industry means a loss of more than $1 million in tax revenues, he notes.

If furloughs continue for more than a few days, other effects will slowly begin to show up, because fewer workers will be staffing government offices each week to handle paper work. For example, furloughs in the staff of the Social Security Administration - greatly reduced during the 1980s - would result in a longer wait before new applicants would receive social security or disability payments.

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