FAIRBANKS — With 30 percent of its forecasting positions now vacant as the result of a hiring freeze, the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks is already walking a thin line.
That line will get even thinner if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration follows through on a plan to furlough National Weather Service employees this summer, a union representative in Fairbanks said.
Jim Brader, a meteorologist in Fairbanks and the Alaska rep for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said NOAA is planning to furlough Weather Service employees around the country sometime this summer, including the 200 employees working in Alaska.
The National Weather Service has 19 offices in Alaska and workers at each of those offices will be furloughed for four days as part of the budget-cutting sequestration ordered by Congress, Brader said in a press release. The furloughs are an attempt to save the federal government money, but the public could end up paying for it in the form of less reliable weather information, he said.
Offices are only staffed for benign weather and extra staff is called in only for major meteorological events, such as storms, flooding or wildland fires. Employees on furlough status cannot, by law, be called in, Brader said.
“When furloughs occur, things like aviation and marine forecasts and flood warnings will not be as good and the public could suffer harm,” Brader said.
In addition, there is now a hiring freeze in effect at the Weather Service and 10 percent of the positions in Alaska are vacant, which is twice the percentage of other areas in the country, Brader said. In Fairbanks, 30 percent of the current 16 forecasting positions are vacant, requiring forecasters to work one day of overtime every two weeks while managers are working shifts just to cover the basic workload, he said.
“These already understaffed offices, such as in Fairbanks, cannot withstand employee furloughs on top of the hiring freeze,” Brader said.
The prelminary dates NOAA selected for the furloughs are July 5-19 and Aug. 5-30, though the furlough dates for 24-hour forecasting offices such as Fairbanks are still being determined, Brader said.
When Congress approved sequestration cuts, NOAA put in a hiring freeze as a way of meeting those cuts, he said. The freeze hit Alaska particularly hard because the Weather Service had several people retire in December 2012 who have not been replaced.
“We’ve had some positions open since last September,” Brader said.
The union says the furloughs are not financially necessary because they will save only $6.6 million out of a $1 billion budget nationwide.
The union has proposed to reapportion some of the $750 million in grants that NOAA is making this year to avert the furloughs, but so far NOAA has resisted. The union has appealed to Sen. Mark Begich, chair of the Senate sub-committee with oversees NOAA, for help, Brader said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.