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Furloughs in the forecast for NOAA workers, just in time for hurricane season

By Joe Sutton, CNN
updated 8:04 PM EDT, Tue April 30, 2013
The proposed four-day furloughs caused by forced government spending cuts would affect nearly 12,000 employees.
The proposed four-day furloughs caused by forced government spending cuts would affect nearly 12,000 employees.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NOAA has had to reduce its budget by 7% this fiscal year
  • Officials say measures will be taken to staff offices during weather events
  • Union has concerns, wonders how offices will be staffed
  • The forecast is for an above-average hurricane season

(CNN) -- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices across the nation may soon have more cloudy days as the forced government spending cuts cause the agency to ask thousands of employees to take unpaid days off.

Proposed four-day furloughs would affect nearly 12,000 people, which includes workers at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, from July 1 to September 30, in time for what is expected to be an active hurricane season.

NOAA oversees the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Hurricane Center and other offices that provide forecasts, severe weather alerts and other important information to the public.

With fiscal uncertainty and tight budgets hitting government agencies, NOAA had to make tough choices, said the agency's director of communications. NOAA was forced to reduce its fiscal year 2013 budget by 7%.

"Unfortunately, after much serious deliberation, in order to help address current budget shortfalls, we are moving forward ... to implement furloughs across the agency ... unfortunately, furloughs are necessary to help close the gaps," Ciaran Clayton said.

This news comes on top of a NOAA hiring freeze that went into effect in March.

A Republican senator bemoaned the spending cuts, which also took effect in March.

"Sen. (Marco) Rubio has always said that the sequester was dumb, in part because it does not prioritize core public safety functions," said his press secretary, Alex Conant.

Richard Hirn, an attorney for the union that represents NOAA employees, believes the furloughs will harm employees and only bring "minimal savings."

"NOAA's plans to furlough operational employees at the National Weather Service as we enter the severe storm, flood and hurricane season is unnecessary and places the public at great risk," said Hirn, general counsel for the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Forecasters at Colorado State University have predicted an above-average 2013 Atlantic hurricane season with 18 tropical storms, nine of which are expected to become hurricanes.

NOAA's hurricane hunters, who bear the responsibility of flying into storms and taking crucial data, will still fly this season, although civilian flight crew members will alternately be furloughed.

A primary concern raised by some employees affected by the furloughs are the unexpected events that pop up with little to no warning.

"It is not an average job; you can't tell a tornado to wait 10 minutes because you are doing something else," said Daniel Sobien, president of NWSEO.

States like Florida are assessing the effect of federal forced spending cuts on their ability to prepare for upcoming weather events.

"Gov. (Rick) Scott will provide a full update to local emergency personnel at the governor's hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale next week," said Frank Collins, a spokesman for the governor.

NOAA administrators said the impact on public services will be "minimized," and if a major weather event requires more staff, furloughs would be canceled.

But the union has its doubts. Sobien said that it would be impossible to fill every shift because 10% of NOAA's positions are vacant and the number is forecasters is down significantly. Where once there were 10 forecasters per office, now many operate with four or five, he said.

The designated furlough dates are July 5, July 19, August 5 and August 30.

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