Wolf warns of effect of furloughs for National Weather Service employees

Posted: May 24, 2013

The Winchester Star

Rep. Frank Wolf

WINCHESTER — Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10th, cites Monday’s devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma as further evidence of why National Weather Service employees shouldn’t be furloughed.

Wolf sent a letter dated May 22 to acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, imploring her to avoid the furloughs.

“...I understand that the department’s current planning for fiscal year 2013 envisions a four-day furlough for all National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees, including NWS employees,” the letter states. “The severe weather events in Oklahoma this week have further convinced me that we should not take any chance that avoidable furloughs might result in a degradation of weather prediction and forecasting services.”

The furloughs would save the National Weather Service $6.5 million, and NOAA as a whole $17 million, Wolf said in an interview Wednesday. He said he’d spoken with Blank Wednesday afternoon.

“There are many ways to find savings from other areas and not need be in furloughs,” Wolf said. “In fact, they have programs that the Congress doesn’t even favor [where] they could do it.”

The congressman said he’d provided Blank, who is also the deputy secretary of commerce, a “whole series” of programs that could be cut, but declined to identify what they are for fear of tying her hands.

Wolf is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which funds NOAA. He said he expected further communication with Blank’s staff this week.

“I’ve talked to the secretary today, told her I will work with her and we can find the savings so there doesn’t have to be any furloughs, particularly during this very critical time,” he said Wednesday.

The March 1 sequestration order from President Barack Obama cut about $85 billion from the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, according to a March 8 “Sequestration Guidance” memo from Blank. The result is about a 5-percent reduction in Commerce Department funding, according to the memo.

It states that the funding loss would result in program cuts, hiring reductions and delays in purchases and travel.

Employees would get at least 30 days’ notice before the department would “initiate furlough actions,” if furloughs became necessary, according to the memo.

“We will continue to consult with employee bargaining unions during this timeframe,” the memo states. “We hope to keep furloughs to a minimum within the Department.”

Of NOAA’s 12,000 employees, about 4,700 work for the NWS, said Ciaran Clayton, who is the acting director of public affairs for the Commerce Department and NOAA’s communications director.

“The department obviously is in receipt of his letter and has had conversations with Congressman Wolf, and we’re working with Congress on all the bureaus’ [spending] plans within the department,” she said Thursday. “This wasn’t a decision that we came to lightly. Unfortunately, the gap that we’re left with with sequestration is pretty significant.”

There are 12 agencies in the Commerce Department, including the Census Bureau, the Economic Development Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office, she said.

The furlough days are proposed to start July 5, and would be spread out over different pay periods through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Clayton said.

While some offices would shut down for a furlough day, “critical 24/7 operations” wouldn’t, she said.

“Much in the way managers plan for sick and vacation time, they would manage the furlough days in a similar fashion,” Clayton said. “While some offices will be closed, weather forecast offices will remain open. The services and the information that we provide will continue to happen.”

The need for the weather service was underscored in two major weather events Virginia experienced last year — the June 29 derecho and superstorm Sandy in October, Wolf said.

His letter states that he’d sent Blank “a number of letters” on the sequestration issue this spring, and discussed it with her during an April budget hearing.

“Again, the tornadoes earlier this week underscore the life and safety mission that NWS employees perform,” his letter concludes. “There should be no higher priority at the Department than ensuring that these critical services are maintained.”

The furloughs would also come during what is predicted to be an active hurricane season.

NOAA announced Thursday that it predicts a 70-percent likelihood of 13 to 20 named storms, Clayton said. To be named, a storm must have winds of 39 mph or greater, she said.

“NOAA’s predicting three to six major hurricanes,” Clayton said. “That’s Category 3 or higher.”

Those major hurricanes would bring with them winds of at least 111 mph, according to a news release from NOAA.

The average six-month hurricane season, which starts June 1, has 12 named storms and six hurricanes — of which three are major, according to the release.

“While proposing furlough days in the middle of severe weather or hurricane season isn’t ideal, we really weren’t left with a choice based on when Congress passed the fiscal year ’13 budget,” Clayton said.

— Contact Sally Voth atsvoth@winchesterstar.com