The Pentagon, the headquarters of the Department of Defense, is seen in Arlington, Va. (Getty Images)
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The Defense Department plans to furlough some 680,000 civilian employees for 11 days by the end of September as the result of sequester-related budget cuts.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the plan Tuesday in a departmentwide memo, adding that “I deeply regret this decision.”
Furloughs will start the week of July 8 and run one day a week until the end of September, Hagel said in the memo.
The roughly 28,000 employees who work at the Navy’s four shipyards in Maine, Virginia, Washington state and Hawaii will be exempted, as will be foreign nationals, civilians serving in a war zone, and those needed to protect the safety of life or property, Hagel said in the memo.
“Fewer than one fifth of all civilians paid with appropriated funds will be excepted from furloughs,” Hagel said. That would mean that at least 600,000 of the department’s estimated 750,000 employees would be affected.
At a town hall meeting Tuesday at a Defense facility in Alexandria, Va., Hagel said Defense officials worked as hard as they could to get the original 22-day furloughs down, first to 14 days, and then to 11 days. He said he tried to cut them further, but “we got to a point where I could not responsibly go any deeper” without jeopardizing the nation’s military readiness.
“We’ve taken it as close to the line as we can,” Hagel said.
If Defense finds itself in a more stable fiscal situation later this year, Hagel said the agency may be able to shave off a few more furlough days. But Hagel stressed that he could not promise that will be the case.
Hagel acknowledged that the current pay freeze — now in its third year — will make the furloughs even harder on Defense civilians. The Obama administration has proposed a 1 percent pay raise next year to break the freeze, but Hagel said it is up to Congress to pass it, and a raise is not certain.
And Defense is already looking forward to fiscal 2014, which could deliver additional severe budget cuts.
“I can’t guarantee you that we’re not going to be in some kind of a similar situation next year,” Hagel said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen. But ... we’re just trying to survive and get through this fiscal year. I would hope [next year is better], but you can’t lead an operation ... based on hope. We’re all trying to get to some high ground for FY 2014, and then we’ll see.”
Hagel said Defense scaled back spending on contracts and other accounts to help mitigate furloughs as much as possible.
“We’ve looked at this in every way we could possibly look at it,” Hagel said.
But one Army civilian in Pennsylvania, who asked for his name not to be printed, told Federal Times in a phone interview he is angry that many contractors he works with won’t be affected by the furloughs.
“If we should have to take a furlough, they should have to take a furlough,” the Army civilian said. “It’s not sounding too fair for us.”
The Army civilian said his wife recently lost her job, which already put his family in a tough financial situation. He said his family will cancel its newspaper subscription and cable television because of the furloughs. And his family may also have to cut back on grocery shopping, stop going to the movies, and even put off paying some bills to absorb losing one-fifth of his pay for 11 weeks.
Other Defense civilians are having even more trouble making ends meet, the Army civilian said, and will be especially hurt by the furloughs.
“There are people who will be in serious trouble,” he said.
Furlough notices are to go out betwen May 28 and June 5.
Hagel defended the decision to exempt naval shipyard employees from the furlough, saying “it would be particularly difficult to make up delays in maintenance work on nuclear vessels and these vessels are critical to mission success.” He said that “all other depot employees, whether mission-funded or working capital fund employees, will be subject to furlough.”
Some DoD intelligence personnel also may escape the furlough, depending on how their salaries are funded. If their salaries are funded with National Intelligence Program (NIP) funds, the director of national intelligence will decide if they are to be furloughed. Employees who are funded with Military Intelligence Program (MIP) funds will be subject to the furlough, Hagel’s memo said.
Also, employees who support foreign military sales will not be furloughed because their salarties are not paid for through appropriations, but rather with proceeds of the Foreign Military Sales program. As a result, any furloughs would not save money.
Because of the sequester, the Pentagon is having to absorb about $37 billion in across-the-board cuts this year. DoD officials had originally planned to furlough employees for up to 22 days, but then reduced that number in March to 14 following passage of a final 2013 spending bill that provided more spending flexibility.
Hagel said the department is taking many other steps to accommodate the sequester cuts. “We have begun making sharp cuts in the training and maintenance of our operating forces — cutbacks that are seriously harming military readiness,” he said in the memo.
“The Army, for example, has terminated most remaining FY 2013 training rotations at its combat training centers. The Air Force has or soon will stop all flying at about one-third of its combat-coded squadrons in the active forces. The Navy and Marine Corps are cutting back on training and on deployments — including a decision not to send a second carrier strike group to the Gulf,” he added.
While Hagel said he would have liked to further cut the number of furlough days, “he decided that we really don’t have a choice but to save money for the remainder of [fiscal 2013] to support military readiness, operations and training,” a senior Defense official said in an email on condition that he not be identified. “No one is happy with having to make this tough decision, especially him.”
Federal unions and lawmakers have been pressing Hagel to give flexibility to individual military branches and Defense Department agencies to decide whether furloughs are necessary. Hagel rejected those calls, saying the department would adopt a consistent furlough policy that would apply to all DoD components as a matter of fairness.
Overall, the furloughs will save less than $2 billion, Hagel’s memo said.
“We think this is a political decision, not a decision about money,” said Matt Biggs, legislative and political director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, in an interview following a Pentagon conference call with unions representing DoD civilian employees.
Hagel said he will reassess later whether continued furloughs are needed. “If our budgetary situation permits us to end furloughs early, I would strongly prefer to do so. That is a decision I will make later in the year,” he said in the memo.