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OPM official: Furlough letters were approved by AG

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OFFICE of Personnel Management acting Director Frances Salas on Monday said before they were sent out to the affected employees, the furlough letters were presented to and approved by the Office of the Attorney General.

She said the decision to furlough employees was not decided by OPM alone, but was made under the guidance of the AG’s office, the governor’s legal counsel, the special assistant for administration, and the Civil Service Commission.

Salas told the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding that prior to the issuance of furlough letters, “we met with the administration along with the governor’s legal counsel and the [special assistant for administration]. They basically informed us that there would be a deep decline in government revenues, and we needed to take action on how we would basically continue to provide essential services to the community with a limited number of staff.”

She said based on “our regulations, there are two things that can happen: furloughs and also a reduction in force. But because of the time sensitivity, we knew that a reduction in force would not be possible at that very moment.”

Reduction in force or RIF, she said, requires a very time-consuming analysis during which OPM would have to take each and every employee’s file and look at their service, performance, etc.

“With RIF comes  severance pay,” she said, adding the lawmakers must identify the funds.

“So we proceeded with the furlough action, and it was discussed that the furlough would have to be for more than 30 days,” she said, adding that OPM regulations state that a furlough of less than 30 days will be considered an adverse action.

“We did not want to go that route. Therefore, it was decided that, because of the time sensitivity, a furlough notice to the civil service employees would be for more than 30 days. So therefore, they were given seven days’ notice, and again, it’s not considered an adverse action,” Salas said.

She said OPM is now preparing for the event when the government is not able to recall furloughed employees.

The administration earlier said that close to 500 employees have been furloughed. The CNMI government has about 3,500 employees, excluding those who work for independent agencies.

“We discussed in several cabinet member meetings that cabinet members need to…look at their lists of employees, see where or how [they] would be able to cut staff, but still able to continue [providing] the services needed [by the community],” Salas said.

“We told them to start from the bottom, [meaning] provisional status employees, probational [employees], limited-term [employees], etc…. We left it to the department heads to make the right decision as to whom to furlough. That’s how we came up with the furlough list.”

She added, “We did give [department heads] guidance, like I said, verbally, in the cabinet member meetings and then also, our former director [Isidro Seman] issued a memorandum basically reiterating what we stated.”

But “now that I look back on the memo that was issued, I think there could have been a bit clearer instruction reiterating again that they start from the bottom with the provisional, probationary, and limited-term employees, but our office did provide guidance.”

Salas said the furlough letters were presented to the AG’s office and were approved by Attorney General Edward Manibusan and Deputy Attorney General Lillian Tenorio.

Office of Personnel Management acting Director Frances Salas, far left foreground, appears before the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding on Monday. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

She said OPM and the Office of Management and Budget worked closely together on the furlough list.

However, she said the furlough lists provided to OPM were not the same lists provided to OMB.

“I had to continue to go back to [Special Assistant of Management and Budget Vicky Villagomez] for the check and balance…. I did not make any alterations… When I went to OMB to do a cross-check, I did notice there were some things that were added, and then some things that were deleted.”

Salas said she was not sure who altered the lists, why they were altered, who ultimately approved them.

“I basically modified my list to match what [OMB] had because I didn’t get any notice from any other departments stating that a certain person is being removed or [reinstated],” she said.

Salas said furloughs based on loyalty is not an appropriate standard to use. It should be about “performance, reliability, customer service, whether or not [an employee is] essential…and seniority.”

She said furloughed employees do not have the right to appeal.

But if the furlough was for less than 30 days, it would be considered an adverse action and thus, an employee would have the right to appeal.

Salas said perhaps OPM should work with the AG’s office regarding this matter because the AG approved the furlough letters and gave OPM “the okay to proceed.”

She noted that there is no assistant attorney general currently assigned to OPM.

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