(The Hagstrom Report) – The Agriculture Department has no choice but to furlough meat inspectors if sequestration goes into effect on March 1, but the date on which the furloughs would begin for inspectors and other government employees would depend on labor agreements, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today.
“This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item by the same percentage,” Vilsack told the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum. Within the Food Safety and Inspection Service, he said, there are “very few lines” and the only way to come up with required savings is to furlough workers.
But Vilsack later told reporters at a news conference that USDA has a number of labor contracts with varying provisions on furloughs. Some contracts call for a 30-day notice, others for 60 days and still others for 120 days and under some contracts furloughs are subject to collective bargaining, Vilsack said. He added that he was not prepared to discuss the specifics of contracts with meat inspectors.
Meat that has not been inspected cannot be sold. The Obama administration has said the furloughs would cause meat processing plants to close and that USDA shutdowns would cost more than $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. USDA has also noted that the meat supply would be reduced.
Meat industry groups have said that the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Production Inspection Act require meat inspectors to be on the job, and have suggested that Vilsack declare them “essential” federal employees, which would mean that they would be paid even if other federal workers are not.
But Vilsack said that the “essential” worker declaration had been made in the context of government shutdowns when there was a guarantee that Congress would reimburse the agencies for the salaries that had been paid. The sequestration measure would be different, Vilsack said, because the agency would simply get less money.
“The shutdown lens doesn’t fit,” Vilsack said. “This is different from a shutdown.”
Vilsack said that Congress should give flexibility to USDA on how to conduct the sequestration or pass a larger package that would resolve all the issues surrounding the sequestration.
Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said in a news release Wednesday that he had written Vilsack to “demand answers” on how USDA would handle the sequester and still comply with the meat inspection law.
Vilsack said today that instead of writing him letters, members of Congress should write a bill to change the sequester law.