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Published March 15, 2013, 10:19 AM

Meat inspector furloughs coming in July

Each inspector will be furloughed for 11 days.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Federal meat inspectors will be furloughed in July on the same day in every part of the country, and each inspector will be furloughed for a total of 11 days before Sept. 20 to fulfill the requirements of a law mandating a cut in government spending, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on March 13.

The sequester law requires a 5 percent cut in federal spending in all domestic departments through Sept. 30.

Hagen said the Food Safety and Inspection Service had decided to furlough all employees at once because that would be fairest to the industry. If the agency staggered the furloughs and a solution is found after the furloughs had started, she noted, the meat, poultry and egg products industries in one part of the country would undergo an economic burden, while the others would not.

The total amount of the FSIS budget cut is likely to be $54.8 million, or 5 percent of the agency’s annual budget, Hagen said. But the figure is not certain because Congress has not yet passed the continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Hagen said all 9,212 FSIS employees will be furloughed, including the 8,136 inspectors and other personnel such as lab technicians that the agency considers frontline employees.

She explained that 88 percent of the FSIS budget goes for salaries and benefits, and that there is no way the agency can avoid the furloughs and comply with the sequester law.

USDA officials have also noted that plans are for one furlough day per week and no more than two furlough days per pay period, but that the furloughs would be subject to negotiations with the labor unions for the employees.

‘Sky-is-falling mantra’

Republican members of the subcommittee, including the new chairman, Robert Aderholt of Alabama, repeatedly expressed frustration that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had not found some way to avoid furloughing the inspectors.

“I do not agree with the position that the secretary has staked out on this issue while traveling around the country with his sky-is-falling mantra,” Aderholt said in opening remarks.

“FSIS’s budget has increased by nearly $75 million since 2008, to $1.004 billion,” he said. “While I realize that this is a salary-intensive agency, I hope that there is a reasonable and responsible way to meet the challenges of sequestration while minimizing the impact on frontline inspectors and industry alike.”

But Hagen was firm that U.S. Department of Agriculture lawyers have examined the meat inspection and sequester statutes and found no alternative to the furloughs planned.

Reminded that FSIS has kept the inspectors on the job during government shutdowns, Hagen noted that the sequester is different because Congress does not plan to provide the agency the money that has been sequestered for this year, and is planning on maintaining the cuts in future years.

USDA employees, she noted, are prohibited “from spending money we don’t have. This is different from a shutdown.”

“We are looking at an enormous economic disruption,” Hagen acknowledged, but said there is no danger to food safety because meat that has not been inspected cannot be sold.

She also said it would not be practical to shift inspectors from one plant to another because that would involve travel expenses and could also endanger food safety because inspectors would be assigned to tasks they are not used to performing.

USDA does not have the flexibility to move money among accounts to keep the meat inspectors on the job. But eight Republican senators including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., proposed giving USDA flexibility to move money around to avoid the furloughs. The House-passed continuing resolution does not contain any flexibility for the meat inspectors and some House Republicans have said they don’t want to give the Obama administration flexibility in spending, but Aderholt said he would “take a look” at the amendment.

Aderholt noted that Vilsack had not asked for the flexibility and also said that he does not share the concerns of some Republicans about giving the Obama administration the flexibility to shift money around.

“This is a CR [continuing resolution],”“Aderholt said. “The department understands and we understand it would be appropriate to give them that flexibility.”