What Federal Employees Need to Know About Furloughs and RIFs

What should federal employees know about furloughs and RIFs? The author provides the critical basics of each.

Furlough and reduction in force (RIF) are terms no federal employee wants to hear. Yet, these terms cannot now be ignored as federal agencies brace for the impact of President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal.

President Trump has made it clear that he wants to cut government costs. Within the first week of his presidency, he ordered a hiring freeze for non-military personnel (lifted earlier this month, but with restrictions to be imposed Agency by Agency), and his proposed budget includes deep cuts to many agencies, including the Department of State and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In response, on March 27, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sent out guidelines to federal agencies detailing the procedures that would govern administrative furloughs and reshaping the workforce – a phrase that plainly implies RIFs in some affected agencies.

So, what should federal employees know about furloughs and RIFs? Here are the basics.


Federal employees who find themselves furloughed are basically in a holding pattern. They won’t be separated from their agencies, but they will have unpaid time off during their scheduled work weeks. Furlough time is determined by the agency and cannot exceed 30 consecutive calendar days or 22 non-continuous work days. Any period longer than that would fall into the RIF category.  This kind of furlough affected the Department of Defense during 2013, the year of budget sequestration.

Agencies can schedule an employee’s furlough time non-continuously – for example, an employee can be furloughed every Monday and work a normal shift Tuesday through Friday, which would lessen the financial impact for the employee and the work-flow impact on the agency. If a furloughed employee is asked to work a half-day on a day when he or she wouldn’t normally work (i.e. a Saturday), that employee cannot claim overtime benefits. Furloughed employees would maintain their pay grades and benefits. If furloughed, the employee cannot be ordered to work that day without pay.

Generally, agencies must notify all furloughed employees in writing at least 30 days before the furloughs take effect. The furloughed employee has seven days to furnish both an oral and a written response to the letter, and the employee has the right to appeal the furlough to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Furloughed employees also have the right to representation by an attorney, at the employees’ expense, during the appeals process.

While on furlough, employees can seek outside employment opportunities to supplement their pay, as long as they follow their agencies’ guidelines for outside employment (i.e., must have approval of the supervisor and others as needed to assure there is no conflict of interest posed by the outside employment).

Reductions in Force (RIFs)

If a furlough is purgatory (and temporary in effect), a reduction in force could be considered hell. In a RIF, employees face anything from reassignment to a downgrade to separation from service as a consequence of being the one of the junior persons involved in the RIF.

Employees who are placed in a lower-graded position are entitled to retain their current pay grade for two years (save pay), provided that they spent 52 consecutive weeks at the higher grade level. However, they will be officially considered to be at the lower grade level, which could come into play if there is another RIF or for future job opportunities.

Employees may have bump rights, by which they can displace another employee, or retreat rights, by which they can return to a prior position they held at a lower grade. Space does not permit the details of these rights to be explained here, but employees should become familiar with them, as they could mean the difference between continued employment and separation. Generally, these rights are referred to as “bump and retreat” in the OPM literature and rules.

Like furloughs, RIFs are appealable to the MSPB, with the right to counsel at the employee’s expense.

Employees who are separated from their agencies in a RIF are entitled to a severance package that includes severance pay for up to 52 weeks of pay (depending on length of service), payment of unused annual leave, and a 31-day extension of benefits through the Federal Employees Health Benefit and Federal Employees Group Life Insurance programs. Also, separated employees receive placement on the Reemployment Priority List (RPL), which gives them the first opportunity for positions which come open within their agencies.

All employees who are impacted by a RIF are eligible for their agencies’ Career Transition Assistance Plan (CTAP), through which agencies provide services to help employees find new jobs in the public or private sectors, including priority for competitive service vacancies within the agency. They can also apply for the Interagency Career Transition Assistance Plan (ICTAP), which helps separated employees find jobs at other agencies. Employees can contact their human resources officers for more information about these programs.

The processes for issuing furloughs and RIFs are long and complicated, and it may take months for agencies to enact any workforce reductions. However, in the current environment, employees need to know what can happen to them in these scenarios and be prepared to exercise their rights in the event such action is taken against them.

About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call (202) 787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.