The budget sequester in Washington, D.C., could prompt furloughs of up to a week for Internal Revenue Service employees starting this summer if Congress is unable to reach a deal to avert the automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to begin on Friday.

IRS employees have been informed of potential furloughs of potential furloughs of five to seven days, according to the National Treasury Employees Union. The union plans to bargain with the IRS to find enough cost savings that would spare IRS employees from the prospect of unpaid workdays.

“The IRS is projecting between five and seven furlough days beginning sometime this summer,” NTEU president Colleen Kelley said in a statement. “We have had informal discussions with the agency about this matter and we will engage in bargaining when the formal notice of furlough is provided.”

Staffing shortages at the agency could have an impact on tax administration, taxpayer service and tax enforcement if the budget cuts go through, as well as efforts at combating identity theft-related tax fraud, in addition to the IRS’s interactions with the tax practitioner community (see Letting the Sequester Fester).

However, the IRS decided to postpone the furloughs until after tax season. "We expect that every one of us would take no more than one furlough day per pay period, beginning sometime in the summer, after the filing season ends," IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller wrote in an internal memo to employees obtained by CNNMoney.

Obama to Meet with Congressional Leaders Friday
Congress may have found a way to avert some of the deepest spending cuts by this summer. President Obama plans to meet with congressional leaders from both parties on Friday to try to find a way to deal with the sequester and the need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government past the end of March. The budget sequester officially takes effect on March 1, prompting automatic budget cuts of $85 billion in both defense and discretionary spending across most goverment programs.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats and Republicans staged votes on competing alternatives to the sequester, but neither bill passed. The Democratic legislation included a combination of spending cuts in farm and defense programs, along with tax increases on wealthy taxpayers and the oil and gas industry. The Republican alternative would have given President Obama the authority to propose a rewrite of the budget to redistribute the spending cuts in a targeted way instead of taking an across-the-board automatic approach, but without allowing tax increases.

Furlough Preparations
Federal employees generally are entitled to 30 days’ formal notice prior to a furlough. The IRS sent a message Thursday to all of its employees and to the NTEU concerning sequestration and its potential impacts. Along with the possibility of furloughs later this year, the agency said it would continue to operate under a hiring freeze for grants and other expenditures, and cut costs in other areas such as travel, training, facilities and supplies.

“None of these developments is good for the agency, for employees or for taxpayers,” Kelley said, underscoring the NTEU’s determination to work to have sequestration canceled, in the event it takes place starting March 1. “IRS employees are middle-class workers who have had their pay frozen for over two years. Those furloughs will hurt their ability to pay their bills and serve the public.”

NTEU-represented employees from the IRS have been in Washington this week as part of the union’s 2013 Legislative Conference. For three days, they have been on Capitol Hill telling members of Congress about the devastating impact of sequestration.

In an NTEU survey of its members, 82 percent of more than 2,200 respondents said the loss of pay due to a furlough would result in difficulty for them paying their rent or mortgage, utility bills and food expenses. Moreover, 43 percent said the lengthy pay freeze has led them to delay medical treatment in order to save money.

“IRS employees, and indeed all federal workers, are in an untenable situation not of their own making,” said Kelley. “Given previous budget cuts, the IRS is operating this filing season with 5,000 fewer employees than just two years ago. Now, IRS employees face potential furloughs and the loss of pay for a week or more; and all federal workers are continuing to function under the threat of at least a partial government shutdown when the current continuing resolution expires on March 27. This is incredibly unfair to them and to the public.” 

The NTEU is the largest independent federal union, representing 150,000 employees in 31 agencies and departments, including the IRS.

Norton Offers to Donate Congressional Pay
At a luncheon session Thursday closing the NTEU's 2013 Legislative Conference, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., offered to donate one day’s pay for each day federal employees are furloughed as a gesture of solidarity with them. The donation would be split between supporting the Federal Employees Education and Assistance Fund, a charity devoted to assisting federal employees in need, and forestalling furloughs of her congressional staff.

While the length of furloughs, if any, will differ among agencies, the congresswoman, whose representation of the District of Columbia does not give her voting rights in Congress, said her donations would match the highest number of furlough days by any federal agency.

The salaries of members of Congress are exempt from sequestration, but their office budgets will be subject to the same across-the-board cuts as federal agencies, Norton said, noting that could lead to furloughs of staff members and reduced constituent services.

“That is not fair to my constituents,” Norton said. “By supplementing my office budget, we will continue to provide the same level of constituent services to District (of Columbia) residents.”