Now that the sequester is officially in effect, public sector unions are getting ready for a wave of furloughs and layoffs. Representatives from some of the biggest unions representing government employees said they could not predict exactly what effect the cuts would have on their members—only that the outcome would be unavoidably painful.
"It's the unknown," said Jeff Zack, a spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
Hundreds of thousands of employees in the Defense Department, the Treasury, the TSA, and numerous other federal agencies are likely to experience unpaid furloughs over the course of the next weeks and months. On the state and local level, the sequester could result in mass layoffs.
"We anticipate that over 50,000 educators across the country could be losing their jobs through all of this," said Mary Kusler, government relations director at the National Education Association (NEA). Public school teachers have already been hit extremely hard by state and local government austerity, losing more than 300,000 jobs since 2009.
The new cuts, said Kusler, would fall disproportionately on school districts that are already underfunded. "Lots of urban centers, a lot of urban poverty."
Some unions are scrambling for ways to mitigate the damage. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers in federal agencies, has demanded that workers be able to choose when they are furloughed, and not be punished for work that does not get done as a result of furloughs. The National Treasury Employees Union has said that it expects managers in the federal government to negotiate furlough distribution with the workers.
But Kusler said some pain was inevitable either way—and not just for union members. Noting that many military bases have their own public schools for the children of Defense Department employees, she said, "There's no way you can furlough educators in these DoD schools and not impact the education of the kids."
Zack said IAFF members would have to work with their localities "to try and come up with potential ways of alternate funding."
"Looking for alternative funding isn't a new concept for them," he said, noting that many jurisdictions have already been dealing with massive budget shortfalls for years. "If they haven't come up with it now, it's going to be hard for them to come up with it in the coming days or weeks."