The Sequester and the Future of Public Sector Jobs

It seems hard to believe that actions, or in-actions, taken by Congress in 2011 could in 2013 stall the economic recovery and result in more than a million lost private sector jobs and massive furloughs of federal employees.

But come Friday, March 1, that’s what might start happening. And the major impact on the public sector jobs picture are possible pay cuts of up to 20 percent through pay lost to furloughs.

Two years ago, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as the debt ceiling compromise. Under the bill, across the board federal budget cuts – known as sequestration – would hit unless a deal was reached to trim government spending by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, according to the Washington Post. Politicians eventually agreed on $1.2 trillion in cuts a 2013 deadline.

The concept was that the indiscriminate cuts would be so horrifying that it would force a compromise between Democrats and Republicans to cut government spending and bring down the federal debt in a planned, orderly fashion.

But the two sides have yet to reach a compromise and as the budget cuts loom, it could affect millions of private and public sector jobs.

According to CNN, more than $500 billion will be cut from the Defense Department and other national security agencies, with the rest cut on the domestic side — national parks, federal courts, the FBI, food inspections and housing aid. Funding for troops in the field, domestic entitlement programs and some aid to the poor are generally exempt.

While the long-term impact upon the future of federal employment by sequestration is unclear, some immediate effects are:

  • The Defense Department will be hit the hardest by sequestration. In preparation, the Pentagon has already let go of tens of thousands of temporary hires and is drawing up a contingency plan for one-day-a-week furloughs for 800,000 employees worldwide, according to Federal News Radio.
  • Federal News Radio also reports that some defense contractor groups say the nearly 10 percent across-the-board Defense cuts would put at least 1 million people out of work and potentially cripple the defense and aerospace industries if sequestration isn’t averted.
  • The Washington Post reports that Customs and Border Protection employees face 14 days of furloughs; Bureau of Prisons workers 12 days; U.S. marshals 13 days; and the FBI, including agents and intelligence analysts, up to 14 days. Salary-heavy agencies that cannot delay projects or grants are most likely to furlough.
  • Also according to the Washington Post, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood painted a nightmarish picture of air travel if the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees are furloughed. He emphasized the potential for flight delays, cancellations and angry travelers.
  • The Congressional Research Service reports that 1.4 million private sector jobs could be lost nationwide as the direct and indirect impacts of sequestration cuts in federal spending.

To avoid sequestration, President Barack Obama is generally seeking a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to the federal budget to bring down the debt. House and Senate Republicans are emphasizing planned spending cuts as the solution. While sequestration is expected to begin on March 1, Washington watchers wouldn’t be surprised if a compromise is reached sometime after sequestration has begun. However, federal spending cuts, of some kind, will occur.

Does that mean an actual loss in the number of federal jobs? Only congress can act – so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

About the author: Logan Harper is the Digital Strategist for MPA@UNC, a full MA in Public Administration program from UNC-Chapel Hill delivered wholly online. He is also the managing editor for Online MPA Degrees, a web resource for MPA rankings and public administration jobs. In addition to education, Logan enjoys traveling, cooking, and watching Netflix.


Logan Harper is a digital strategist for UNC-Chapel Hill's online master of public administration program - one of the top MPA programs in the U.S. In addition to higher education and public service, Logan loves technology, travel, and the museums of Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @harperlogan.