Gramm-Rudman Could Deal Sharp Blows in O.C. : Government: Airline flights could be canceled, agencies' office hours cut if law takes effect.


Travelers flying in and out of Orange County's John Wayne Airport may find some flights canceled.

People dependent on Social Security will get their checks on time, but if there's a problem, they will probably have a long delay finding out what went wrong.

Taxpayers fighting the Internal Revenue Service might have to do battle just to see an agent because employees of that federal agency could be required to cut their work hours.

Those are some of the consequences expected, starting Monday, if Congress does not reach a compromise on the federal budget and cutbacks are necessary to meet the Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting law.

More than 1,200 of the 6,660 federal employees in Orange County have been notified that they will be put on furlough--mandatory days off without pay--if the budget is not passed by Monday, the first day of the federal fiscal year. However, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said Wednesday he expects the deadline to be met.

The furlough would include air traffic controllers, IRS agents, Social Security representatives and federal fair-housing workers in the county. The 7,600 employees of the U.S. Postal Service, a quasi-governmental agency, as well as Department of Defense workers will not be affected.

"I've been a government employee for 21 years, and this is the first time I can recall that Office of Personnel has made it mandatory that all federal agencies notify us of possible furloughs," said John Pepping, union steward for the IRS's district office in Laguna Niguel.

At least 1,200 IRS employees in Laguna Niguel and Santa Ana have been notified that they could be furloughed from three to five days in October and are frightened at the prospect of losing a chunk of their income, said Pepping, who represents 1,700 union members. Ironically, the cutbacks could mean that the agency's collection division in Santa Ana, which is the largest in the United States and averages $7 million in revenue weekly, could close during those days.

In the past, Pepping and other federal employees said, budget crises similar to the Gramm-Rudman controversy have been resolved at the last minute. In 1986, IRS employees were sent home a half-day without pay, only to have their pay later restored.

"But this time it is frightening because a lot of people have families to support and we have a lot of sole wage earners who won't be able to survive with the loss of those three to five days," Pepping said. "This whole process has been disgusting a lot of people here. Their feeling is that our government is going to balance the budget on our backs. It's not fair."

At another federal agency, a receptionist said: "Gramm-Rudman? You want to know what that means? How am I going to pay my orthodontist? What about my car payment?"

Virtually all of the 200 employees at the eight Social Security offices in Orange County have been forewarned that their hours could be cut back, said Eddie Cooksey, deputy public affairs officer for the agency's regional office in San Francisco.

On Wednesday, Social Security officials announced that all offices will be closed on Fridays and open only six hours a day during the rest of the week if Gramm-Rudman takes effect.

"People who are already getting checks will continue to get them without delay," Cooksey said. "But for people who have to do business with Social Security, who have some issue they need to discuss, the time we will be available to them will be limited."

But Jeanette Perkins, union representative for Social Security employees, said the work reductions amount to a 40% cut in pay through the end of the year.

"It's really a shame we're the scapegoats," she said. While the employees are sympathetic to the agency's mandate to cut costs, she said, "we have families to provide for."

Work furloughs, one day a week, are also planned by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the agency has named Orange County's John Wayne Airport one of 41 airports nationwide that could be subject to flight cutbacks during "peak hours" because of the reduced staffing by air traffic controllers.

Currently, it appears that flights will not be restricted at Orange County's airport because the current peak loads can be handled with the reduced staffing, said Fred O'Donnell, FAA spokesman. (There are 37 FAA employees in Orange County, 35 of them air traffic controllers.)

However, he said, it is possible that travelers using Orange County's airport will be affected, nevertheless. For example, San Francisco International Airport, another airport subject to restrictions, must cut back flights during peak hours, he said. Some of the eliminated flights could include those to or from Orange County, he said.

General aviation will also be affected at Orange County. Because the FAA will allow only a predetermined number of takeoffs and landings by private and commercial aircraft each hour, private pilots will have to apply ahead of time for slots, he said.

"They can't just climb into their airplanes and head out," he said.

In Santa Ana, 80 employees at the fair housing and equal opportunity office of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department have been warned that they could lose, as early as next Thursday, 10 hours for every 40 hours on the job, or essentially 25% of their work week, "until this is settled," said spokesman Robert Nipp in Washington.

At the Small Business Administration in Santa Ana, director Steve Waddell said the office's 58 employees are "waiting for guidance" from their headquarters in Washington. As at other federal agencies, the SBA employees have received notice that they can be furloughed up to 22 days throughout the fiscal year, Waddell said.

Under a two-stage plan, part-time employees of the federal marshal's office could be laid off beginning Monday, said Craig Meacham, federal marshal in Los Angeles. However, if the budget crisis continues, the entire marshal's office would close down Oct. 11, 12 and 15, he said.

Despite the dire contingency plans by federal agencies, Dornan said he is convinced a budget agreement will be reached by Monday. "And if everything fell apart and Gramm-Rudman kicked in, it would be only for a few days."

The Democrats must compromise because with the election only 40 days away, they do not want to risk the public outrage that would result if the severe cutbacks occur, he said.

"I'm convinced we're going to be here (in session) Sunday," Dornan said. "Everybody likes to take us to the brink of Niagara Falls."

BUDGET BATTLE: The President blames Democrats for budget impasse. A3

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