By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The nation's largest employer, the U.S. government, has begun notifying its vast and varied workforce to prepare for reduced hours and slashed paychecks over the next seven months as big budget cuts that were once an abstraction became a reality Friday.
Some 115,000 employees of the Department of Justice -including prosecutors across the country - were among the first to get the official word in notices that actually started going out last week but were made public Friday, hours before the $85 billion in cuts were set to take effect.
They were told they would be furloughed for "no more than 14 workdays" between April 21 and September 30.
The full scope of the cuts - and the method of implementing them-may become clearer after President Barack Obama signs an order late Friday night and the White House budget office issues further instructions to agencies on how to implement it.
The across-the-board cutbacks were mandated by an August, 2011 deficit reduction law, structured to be so disruptive that Congress would ultimately replace them with more targeted savings.
Congress postponed them for two months in the January "fiscal cliff" deal, but that delay ended Friday, after Democrats, who control the White House and the U.S. Senate, and Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, failed to agree on a way forward.
Notices of "intent to furlough" have gone to many of the unions representing government employees, with whom officials of each agency are required to consult as they plan the reductions in work days designed to achieve the savings mandated by Congress in August, 2011.
The Department of the Army informed unions that all civilian units may need to schedule up to 176 "non-contiguous hours" of furlough, equating to 22 eight-hour days between April and the end of the government's fiscal year in September.
The military employs roughly 800,000 civilians, and with half the $85 billion in cuts concentrated on defense, those workers are expected to be among the hardest hit.
Unions representing employees of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland, got notices Thursday.
U.S. ports of entry, with thousands of immigration, customs and transportation-related employees will also be heavily impacted.
The full extent of the disruption the furloughs might cause won't be clear for some weeks, as federal rules require that 30 days pass before they can be implemented.
According to government officials, no employees will be taken off the job before then, though hiring freezes are already in effect at many federal agencies in anticipation of the cuts.
The White House and heads of top agencies in Washington have said that if the cuts continue for the full seven months mandated under the law, the furloughs could disrupt virtually every federal activity in the country, from patrols along the borders to inspections of meat in plants to the movement of cargo and people through airports and customs.
Theoretically, the sequestration could continue for another nine years under the law establishing the cuts, though that is considered unlikely.
"What we've basically been told is that every employee in customs and border protection is subject to being furloughed," said Richard M. Larrabee, port commerce director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"Right now that plan looks like it could be as much as one day out of every 10 would be unpaid vacation day. The impact of that is not completely clear to us or to customs at this point," he told Reuters.
Though Washington is the seat of government, only about 370,000 of the nation's 2.7 million federal workers are in the Washington metropolitan area.
The others are spread around the United States and the world, with the heaviest concentrations in California, Illinois, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The average federal worker, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office, is 47 years old with 16 years of service. Slightly fewer than half had college degrees. Their average annual pay is about $40,000.
(Additional reporting by Hilary Russ and David Ingram; Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Walsh)