WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- Federal workers have weathered a two-year pay freeze, increased health insurance premiums, and threats of more cuts from Republicans.
Now their jobs are in jeopardy. Some 277,000 workers -- 14% of the federal work force -- could lose their jobs in the next 12 months if the U.S. cannot avert the so-called fiscal cliff, according to a study by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
If Congress doesn't act by Jan. 1, the U.S. will go over the fiscal cliff, triggering about $1.2 trillion worth of spending cuts over a decade.
The cuts could slice some 48,000 federal workers from civilian defense jobs and 229,000 from federal jobs.
No one knows exactly how the cuts would fall. The White House's Office of Management and Budget has released figures on how much is slated to be axed from each agency. But it has yet to identify programs at stake.
Jobs could be slashed from food inspections, health institutes, national parks and even air traffic control towers staffed by Federal Aviation Administration employees, said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis.
Who's Hiring For The Holidays
Fiscal Cliff Threatens 277,000 Federal Jobs
Seasonal job openings: 5,200
A staple of many shopping malls across the nation, the gourmet gift basket retailer relies heavily on holiday sales to add to its profits. A privately held company, Hickory Farms perennially hires as many as 6,000 seasonal workers to work at its stores, which it calls "Holiday Gift Centers." Though many jobs involve interacting with customers, the company also needs additional workers to fill stock and labor positions, which may include driving in some locations, it says.
Though it has no bricks-and-mortar stores to staff, Amazon.com Inc.'s seasonal hiring plans are nonetheless robust. It needs plenty of additional workers to help fill orders and keep products moving through its warehouses nationwide. The Seattle-based company, which is unveiling a new line of Kindle-brand electronic readers and tablets, also plans to add 2,000 new jobs at three new distribution centers to help deal with demand driven by the new devices.
The department store operator announced it September that it would ramp up holiday hiring by more than 10 percent from last year to support its business in stores and online. Wisconsin-based Kohl's Corp., which operates 1,134 stores in 49 states, plans to hire an average of 41 workers at each store, a 4 percent increase from last year. The company also expects to add about 5,700 seasonal positions at distribution centers and more than 30 seasonal credit operations jobs.
The former No. 1 seller of toys in the U.S., Toys R Us Inc. credits a gradually improving economy and an increase in consumer spending for its decision to hire 11 percent more seasonal workers than the 40,000 it did in 2011. Of those it hired last year, Toys R Us says roughly 15 percent of them were kept on after the holiday sales season ended.
The holidays are the busiest time of year for the world's largest retailer and the company plans to hire more than 50,000 temporary workers to help keep store shelves and move customers through checkout lines as the 2012 holiday season approaches. Walmart Stores Inc. also plans to give existing employees the chance to work more hours during the season, acknowledging complaints among some workers who said they weren't able to work as many hours as they would have liked.
Though far smaller than rival Walmart, the nation's No. 2 retailer nonetheless plans to hire plenty of holiday season workers in 2012. The Minnesota-based company plans to add 80,000 to 90,000 seasonal jobs, down a bit from the 92,000 it hired last year. Hiring forecasts are likely be held in check by Target's expectations of an "ultracompetitive" holiday sales season. Target Corp., along with Walmart, is keeping an eye on expenses, which of course includes labor costs, so as to lower prices and stimulate sales.
The king of all department stores, Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc. said it's hiring nearly 3 percent more seasonal staff than it did last year, in anticipation of higher holidays sales. Sales associates and call center employees are among the positions Macy's is looking to fill, which also include those in its distribution and fulfillment centers, to support the department store operator's growing online business.
Best Buy Co. plans to hire about 9,000 more seasonal workers as it did last year, though this year's number is still below the 29,000 it hired in 2010. In July, the world's largest consumer electronics chain cut 600 of its "Geek Squad" employees in response to weak sales. The boost in seasonal hiring is helping to contribute to what analysts say is the best year of seasonal-job creation that the U.S. has seen in five years.
Much like Best Buy, GameStop has seen its sales erode as more and more consumers turn to buying online. Faced with strong competitors such as Amazon, GameStop has nonetheless managed to hold its own in terms of sales and profits. As with most retailers, the Grapevine, Texas-based company derives much of its sales during the all-important holiday sales season -- and its more than 4,400 stores in the U.S. need more staff to help keep those cash registers ringing.
J.C. Penney Co. has struggled to remake its namesake JCPenney stores into a retail business that's more modern and less reliant on discounts to draw customers. And the coming holiday shopping season will be an important test of whether the signs of improvement that Plano, Texas-based company has lately been showing are real or not. Sales are expected to be tepid this holiday season, but at least one company representative says that won't affect the need for seasonal workers. "[It] looks like there will be another increase this year over last year's hiring," said, Bob Parker, a site manager for JCPenney in Sarasota, Fla., "probably by as much as 10 to 20 percent in some cases."
The fall is prime season for privately held Party City Holdings Inc., which is perhaps best known as a seller of Halloween costumes. But the retailer also sells party supplies and seasonal decorations, which result in a steady flow of customers this time of year. The Rockaway, N.J.-based company has 600 stores nationwide. In addition to its namesake Party City stores, it also operates The Paper Factory, Halloween City and Factory Card & Party Outlet shops.
It takes a lot more workers to help move the millions of boxes and packages Americans send to each other each holiday season. And though FedEx Corp. expects shipping volume will be up 13 percent, it's hiring about as many workers as it did last holiday season. The company says it can stick with the same number of seasonal workers as last year because it has been hiring staff throughout 2012.
The Memphis, Tenn.-based company, which is closely watched as an indicator of consumer demand and economic health, anticipates handling more than 280 million shipments during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Competitor UPS added about 55,000 workers for the holidays last year, 10 percent more than it hired in 2010.
With expectations of delivering 527 million packages this holiday season, UPS Inc. is adding 55,000 workers to sort, load and deliver packages, the same number it hired last year, but 10 percent higher than in 2010. Based on the company's forecast, it appears those and full-time UPS workers will be busiest during the final week before the Christmas holiday. UPS says 28 million, or 5 percent of packages, will be delivered Thursday, Dec. 20 -- projected to be the busiest of the year.
Fuller laid out the worst-case scenario of the spending cuts.
"What that means is some airports won't be able to land as many planes, because FAA controllers won't be in the towers," said Fuller, a public policy professor. "FBI agents won't be on the ground investigating and meat inspectors won't be inspecting."
When contacted, spokespersons from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI, and the National Park Service referred CNNMoney to the Office of Management and Budget for questions on fiscal cliff-related job cuts. The OMB declined comment.
Federal workers have been in the line of fire. House Republicans have held hearings questioning their pay and benefits. Last month, the president extended a two-year pay freeze on salaries through March.
In the presidential debates Wednesday night, Mitt Romney pledged that if elected he'd "cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments," although he said the moves would be accomplished through attrition.
It's not just federal workers who are facing cuts.
If the fiscal cliff isn't averted, it will lead to job losses in the private sector too, which could push unemployment above 9% by the end of 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Despite employee fears, the Obama Administration is telling federal agencies, as well as private federal contractors, not to prepare for massive furloughs and layoffs.
The Administration is betting that Congress will beat the fiscal cliff deadline, even if it means kicking the can down the road, as lawmakers have done so many times before.
Federal workers have received little to no guidance about how to prepare for the fiscal cliff, except by some of their union leaders.
"I've been telling employees for the last year: You need to start putting something away just in case the worst case scenario happens," said Don Hale, a local president of the American Federation of Government Employees at the U.S. Military Academy West Point. He and others workers at West Point are among those whose civilian defense jobs are at stake.
"The problem with that is: It's hard for a (worker) at West Point making $12 an hour to put away a nest egg."