This story was updated Dec. 12, 2012. An explanation follows.
If Congress fails to reach an agreement to avert the automatic spending cuts to the federal budget by Jan. 2, Robert Klein says he is mentally prepared to be out of a job.
Klein, an information technology contractor who works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, is one of about 300,000 employees in Maryland who work either directly or indirectly for the federal government.
As the so-called “fiscal cliff” looms — brought on by the across-the-board expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts — federal workers are worried how their jobs and income will be impacted.
If the automatic cuts are triggered by the failure of Congress and the White House to reach a deal, an estimated 12,600 federal jobs in the state could be cut, said U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) of Mechanicsville.
Klein knows his job could be one of them, although he, like other federal workers, has not heard anything definitive.
“Personally as for my job, I’m 70. I’ve already retired twice,” said Klein, a Wheaton resident. “If they cut me, I’ll just retire a third time.”
Others are less fortunate, he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of pain for a lot of people, and the only question is will the burden of the pain be fair?” Klein said. “It wouldn’t be fair that just the lower-income [people] bear the pain.”
For the past two years, federal salaries have been frozen, and federal workers should not be asked to contribute any more than they have toward deficit reduction, Hoyer said.
But workers are concerned not only that the automatic cuts might occur, but that a bad deal will be reached between the White House and congressional Republicans to avert them, said Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which represents about 2,000 federal workers in the state.
AFSCME and other unions representing federal workers have organized members to call their congressional representatives to support the federal workers in the negotiations.
“We’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place,” Goldman said. “On the one hand, there could be no agreement and cuts occur and that would be bad, or there could be a bad agreement and people would be hurt by that also,” Goldman said. “It's one of the reasons why our position is to not just get an agreement, because a bad agreement could be worse than no agreement.”
While federal agency officials have contingency plans in place in case the automatic cuts take effect, those officials have not told their employees or the public how they would be handled, Goldman said.
“The agencies are keeping that very close,” he said.
The union had wanted to negotiate in case the agencies planned to furlough or lay off workers, but agency personnel officials have refused to discuss the matter, he said, adding, “Nobody really knows.”
Eric Whitenton, 54, a general engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, said some of the federal workers at NIST are worried about the looming fiscal cliff, but they do not talk about it routinely.
“We’ve seen this enough times that we know it can drag out to the last possible nanosecond,” Whitenton said.
NIST officials have not told the workers how the cuts there would be handled either. “We still don’t know the details,” he said, adding that job cuts are always a possibility.
The fact that automatic cuts across the board could be the only way to reduce federal spending is disappointing, he said.
“As a country, we should be grown-ups and able to say ‘Cut this, spend this,’” he said.
House Republicans pressed for the automatic cuts in the last round of debate in 2011 over raising the nation’s debt ceiling limit.
“It’s nonsense,” said William Little, 62, of the automatic spending cuts. Little, a veteran who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration and was walking to a medical appointment Tuesday at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, said Congress was relying on automatic cuts instead of making smart choices about where to target cuts.
While both Democrats and Republicans have agreed that tax cuts on the middle class should be extended, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 also should be extended. He would like to see the deficit reduced through closing some tax loopholes and spending cuts. House Republicans passed a measure that extended a federal pay freeze and 10 percent reduction in the federal work force.
“Washington doesn’t have a taxing problem, it has a spending problem,” said Maryland GOP spokesman David Ferguson. The fact Maryland has so many people who work for the federal government shows that spending needs to be controlled, he said.
President Barack Obama campaigned on extending the middle-class tax cut but returning to the higher tax rates under President Bill Clinton for those making more than $250,000. Obama also met with business leaders Wednesday at the White House to reportedly make the case that the federal budget should have a balance of higher revenues and spending cuts.
The White House released a report Thursday saying a failure to extend the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 annually would increase taxes for 2.2 million Maryland families.
Hoyer and other Maryland Democrats say cutting the federal deficit should not be on the backs of federal workers, who already contributed more than $103 billion toward deficit reduction through the pay freeze and by agreeing that new hires would contribute more to their pensions.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore called for a deal to be reached by Dec. 16 so that federal workers were not going into the holidays with uncertainty about their futures.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville said it was important that Congress recognize the savings already achieved through the pay freeze and to not expect more from federal workers.
Julia Caviston, a cell biology research fellow at NIH, held her 5-year-old daughter’s hand as she walked through the gates of the NIH complex in Bethesda, said she and her colleagues haven’t really talked about the fiscal cliff. They spend their days hunched over their microscopes and leave politics out of the workplace, she said.
“It’s not been made clear to us if our jobs are at risk,” she said. “It’s common sense that they would be to some extent.”
An earlier version of the story had an incorrect estimate of the number of jobs that could be impacted by the sequestration.