Any furlough of meat inspectors is at least several months away, but the length of time before those furloughs could begin will also affect their impact.
That’s according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in his Tuesday testimony to the House Committee on Agriculture.
Though the public hearing was geared toward reviewing the state of the rural economy, much of the early questioning revolved around USDA’s possible furlough of meat inspectors (due to sequestration), when that could happen, how it would take place, and all of the rest.
“No matter how you slice it, and no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the front-line inspectors,” Vilsack said. He explained that the structure of the sequestration mandates spending cuts of the same percentage in all accounts. The fact that there are only a few accounts involving meat inspection means there is less flexibility to comply with sequestration.
“In the food safety area, there are very few accounts; 87% of the budget is front-line inspectors and the support system for front line inspectors… You don’t have the luxury as you do in normal circumstances of transferring money because there is no money to transfer based on the way the sequester is structured,” Vilsack explained. “…We have a limited period of time in which to implement the sequester – 6 to 7 months. The impact of it is basically 10-12% of our remaining budget.”
That latter bit gets at the math cutting each budget item by 5% or so by Sept. 30, as mandated by the sequester. It's like saying you've got to save $60 over the next year, as an example. If you start saving at the beginning of the year, you can save $5 each month and achieve the $60 goal by the end of the year. If you wait until the year is half over then you have to save $10/month.
“This week we will send out notices to union representatives that a furlough is possible,” Vilsack said, describing the process that is part of USDA’s contractual agreement with the respective unions. “One of the challenges is that not every one of our workers in this particular area has e-mail, so we have to hand-deliver a letter or written notification to them. That has to be followed up, under the agreement, with oral conferences that have to take place for any employee that requests one. So, we are looking at a several-month period before a furlough could be implemented, assuming we can negotiate a process with the unions.”
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Frank Lucas (R-OK), House Committee on Agriculture chairman, asked, “So, if the sequester act trumps the food safety act, which is basically what you were saying, do your union labor agreements trump the sequester act?”
“The Food Safety Inspection Act requires companies that want to sell meat to have those items inspected before they can sell them to customers. The law also requires that companies cannot privatize inspection service; it has to be done by USDA officials, USDA employees,” Vilsack explained. “That is subject to having the resources and the appropriation to be able to pay for those inspections… So it’s not a matter of trumping; it’s a matter that the sequencing of this is such that if you don’t have the money to pay for people, you can’t have people on the line and that’s candidly where we are.”
Rather than a furlough on consecutive days to achieve the cuts – shutting down the pipeline for that period of time – Vilsack said, “What we’re going to try to do is to maintain some degree of movement through the people line to avoid a more significant disruption.” Apparently, that would be the product of staggered furloughs.
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