SEQUESTRATION:

EPA employee -- a self-described 'grunt' -- speaks out

So far, Elizabeth Lytle has lost $452 due to sequestration.

After next Friday's third mandatory furlough day for U.S. EPA employees, she'll be out another $226.

And by the end of September, her take-home pay after taxes will be down more than $2,000.

It's a tough hit for someone whose total pay comes to about $52,000, Lytle said in an interview this week. It probably means she and her husband, who can only work part time due to health problems, will be putting off some needed dental work. Lytle said she needs two root canals, but dental work is expensive.

"You have to judge, can I live with the pain, or fork over that money?" she said.

And Lytle, 54, knows pain. The former storekeeper in the Navy Reserve said she's spent the last decade dealing with effects of the cancer that took her thyroid.

Lytle is an administrative program assistant in the EPA Region 5 Acquisition and Assistance Branch in Chicago. She's also an EPA union member with the American Federation of Government Employees. She decided to speak out this week about her health issues and sequestration's impact on her family's financial situation because she believes Congress needs to hear from the "low man on the totem pole" about the hardships federal employees are facing.

"Definitely more government workers need to be explaining to the public and Congress what's happening," Lytle said. "A lot of people are scared to death to speak out, they are afraid for their jobs. [But] the only way people are going to understand what is happening is if they hear what sacrifices we are having to do."

The across-the-board spending cuts imposed by sequestration require EPA to shave more than $425 million from its budget. To minimize furloughs, EPA officials have focused on cutting grants, contracts, travel and other administrative costs.

That strategy has had some success. Last month, acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe announced that rather than the 14 furlough days originally planned, EPA employees would instead be forced to take 79 hours of unpaid leave, or less than 10 days.

But EPA has also recently begun filling some long-vacant positions, prompting AFGE officials to demand that the agency cease all hiring and use any savings to avoid furloughs as much as possible. EPA officials have said they are trying to ease the workload of an already overburdened staff (Greenwire, May 6).

The first phase of the agency's furlough plan includes four mandatory furlough days by mid-June with the third of those days set for next Friday.

When next week's furlough day hits, you won't find Lytle watching television at her home in Waukegan, Ill. The GS-8 level employee who has worked at EPA for nearly eight years got rid of the television during the first year of the now three-year federal pay freeze in order to save money. Since then, she's also gotten rid of the land line for her telephone -- though she keeps the Internet cable because she needs it for work.

Not that work is a happy place these days for Lytle and 40 or so others who work in her office.

"Morale in our building is so low that it's pathetic," Lytle said.

'They want to get rid of the EPA'

Even before sequestration, Lytle considered leaving the federal government. She has kept her eyes open for opportunities. But even after going back to school recently for a bachelor's in environmental policy, she hasn't found much.

Lytle doesn't blame her immediate supervisors for the current state of affairs at her office.

"In my branch, I see a lot of your branch chiefs and division directors doing everything they can to help the workers," she said.

She's more skeptical about how much the senior management at EPA cares about the plight of agency "grunts" like herself.

Not all EPA staff are subject to furloughs. Some presidential appointees who are not subject to federal leave policies don't have to take furlough days.

Perciasepe isn't subject to the furlough, but as a way to show solidarity with his employees, the acting administrator has donated 32 hours of pay to a fund to help federal workers. According to an EPA spokeswoman this week, other members of the senior staff who are not subject to the furlough have done the same.

But Lytle aims most of her anger at Congress.

"The one who is at fault here, in my mind, is the actual Congress," she said. "The president has done what he can do. ... He's got a Congress that really doesn't care about the environment. They want to get rid of the EPA. ... They'll do it any way they can."

She also thinks it's unfair that after the one-two punch of the pay freeze and efforts to boost government workers' retirement contribution amounts, federal employees were asked to bear the brunt of sequestration.

AFGE estimates the savings derived from the pay freeze and retirement alterations have already saved the federal government more than $100 billion over the next decade. The union believes government contractors and the general public should be asked to do more to share the pain of sequestration's cuts.

"We're carrying the lion's share," Lytle said. "It takes everybody to be on board."

But she doesn't have a whole lot of time to hope for change in Washington, D.C. She's trying to plan the rest of her furlough days through the end of the fiscal year.

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