WASHINGTON, March 13, 2013- In order to minimize food safety risks and equalize the impact of sequestration, furloughs of employees in USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will be implemented at the same time in nonconsecutive days, said Under Secretary for Food Safety Elizabeth Hagen this morning.
During a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, Hagen said furloughs would likely begin in mid-summer. “Our intent is to make these nonconsecutive,” she said, adding that “we are looking at furloughing everyone in the same time period.”
FSIS is preparing to furlough employees for up to 11 days and to enforce furloughs for one day per week at a time. Rep. Latham questioned if shutting down all of FSIS instead of staggering the furloughs really is “fair and equitable.”
FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza explained that formatting the furlough days this way is more attainable than staggering them among various parts of the country or among staff positions. “If we start at any one part of the industry and try to replace the number of folks currently assigned to those assignments, we wouldn’t have the resources to do that,” he said.
Hagen noted that 8,136 frontline employees will likely be furloughed, which includes inspectors as well as other non-administrative staff. She said furloughing different staff at different times would be more difficult as well as pose food safety risks. “I would certainly remind everybody that we have an integrated system,” she said. “One part can’t operate without the other.”
The hearing held a similar sense of debate over the implementation of sequestration that Washington, D.C. has been immersed in during the past few weeks. “There’s a healthy dose of skepticism that a five percent reduction would result in such a potentially dramatic impact on the daily lives of citizens,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.
Although exact numbers are not yet determined, Hagen said the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates the FSIS sequester reduction totals $52.8 million. Eighty percent of FSIS funding is applied toward salaries and benefits, primarily for in-plant and frontline personnel. “Given this formula of the Agency’s budget allocations, furloughs would be unavoidable under a $52.8 million sequestration scenario, implemented at such an advanced stage in the fiscal year,” she testified.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Flor., asked why FSIS cannot declare meat inspectors to be essential employees, as the agency has done during past government shutdown scenarios where appropriations are temporarily halted. Hagen said the difference with sequestration is “we’re talking about permanent, mandatory cuts. We’re prohibited by fiscal law to spend money we don’t have.”
She added that, “We’re not aware of any mechanism that inspectors could be paid in an overtime fashion” in the event of a furlough, because the workweek must last over 40 hours to qualify as overtime.
Hagen emphasized she is not worried about the safety of meat and poultry products under this scenario, because products cannot be sold without USDA inspection. However, she warned of a “dramatic economic impact” that will interrupt supply. She also said furloughs will apply to import inspectors. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., cautioned that interruptions to U.S. import inspections might have consequences to trade treaties with other countries.
“There are a lot of questions in sequestration,” Farr said, noting that the House-passed Continuing Resolution to fund the government for FY 2013 included extensive flexibility provisions for the Department of Defense. “We ought to be able to give some wiggle room to the Ag Department.”
Yoder pressed Hagen that if a five-percent reduced budget is the permanent reality and Congress passed legislation that mandated FSIS to continue inspections, the agency should have a plan to operate efficiently.
“We can plan and we can cut to the bare bones, but in the end we have to have the money to do our work,” she replied.
Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., noted that FSIS’ budget increased nearly $75 million since 2008 to $1.004 billion. “I hope there is a reasonable and responsible way to meet the challenges of sequestration while minimizing the impact on frontline inspectors and industry alike.” However, Hagen insisted that “I believe Congress can still fix this.”
Both FSIS officials at the hearing outlined ways the agency is attempting to reduce spending. “We’ve been very aggressive in taking a look at everything we do,” Hagen said. “We’ve been able to cut the necessary number of furlough days in half.”
Almanza said the agency eliminated non-frontline jobs over the past three years and closed five district offices. He said the agency is contemplating reorganizing headquarters staff, as well as eliminating some program areas.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., noted that FSIS’s budget baseline increased over the past five and ten-year baselines, but did decrease within the last three years.
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