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Published February 25, 2013, 10:11 AM

Sequestration looms

Furlough dates will depend on labor agreements.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has no choice but to furlough meat inspectors if sequestration of government funds goes into effect on March 1, but the date on which the furloughs would begin for inspectors and other government employees would depend on labor agreements, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Feb. 21.

Employees ranging from meat inspectors to Farm Service Agency county employees would be furloughed under the cutback in government spending that is scheduled to go into effect March 1, but it is still possible that Congress will write a bill by April 1 that would soften the effects.

“This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item by the same percentage,” Vilsack told the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum. Within the Food Safety and Inspection Service, he said, there are “very few lines” and the only way to come up with required savings is to furlough workers.

But Vilsack later told reporters that USDA has a number of labor contracts with varying provisions on furloughs. Some contracts call for a 30-day notice, others for 60 days and still others for 120 days, and under some contracts, furloughs are subject to collective bargaining, Vilsack said. Meat that has not been inspected cannot be sold. The Obama administration has said the furloughs would cause meat processing plants to close and USDA shutdowns would cost more than $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. USDA has also noted that the meat supply would be reduced.

Meat industry groups have said that the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Production Inspection Act require meat inspectors to be on the job, and have suggested that Vilsack declare them “essential” federal employees, which would mean that they would be paid even if other federal workers are not.

But Vilsack said the “essential” worker declaration had been made in the context of government shutdowns when there was a guarantee that Congress would reimburse the agencies for the salaries that had been paid. The sequestration measure would be different, Vilsack said, because the agency would simply get less money.

Vilsack said Congress should give flexibility to USDA on how to conduct the sequestration or pass a larger package that would resolve all the issues surrounding the sequestration.

Avoiding sequestration

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have proposed a deal to avoid sequestration under which Defense Department spending would be reduced and the USDA direct payments program would be eliminated. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and a dozen commodity groups have opposed the use of the direct payments budget authority for deficit reduction without the writing of a new farm bill.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small, environmentally minded farmers, supported the Reid-Stabenow proposal on the grounds that the direct payments program should be eliminated and that the bill would fund vital programs. Wholesome Wave, a group that tries to make it cheaper for food stamp beneficiaries to buy fruits and vegetables, also backed it.

Republicans in the House have rejected the Reid-Stabenow proposal and conservative House members want the sequestration cuts to go through. But Vilsack has said he will give all USDA employees 30 days notice before starting furloughs. That would mean sequestration would not really be felt until April 1.