DOD cuts furlough days, adds few exemptions

Tuesday - 5/14/2013, 2:00pm EDT

Associated Press

After weeks of debate and number crunching, the Defense Department announced plans Tuesday to furlough about 680,000 of its civilian employees for 11 days through the end of this fiscal year, allowing only limited exceptions for the military to avoid or reduce the unpaid days off.

According to a Pentagon memo released today, the decision was forced by what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called "an unpleasant set of choices" between the desire to avoid furloughing workers versus using funds to restore sharp cuts in training and flight operations.

Hagel announced the decision Tuesday, at a town hall meeting with Defense Department civilians in Virginia. The furlough notices are expected to begin going out May 28, and the unpaid days off would begin no sooner than July 8, according to the memo.

"I understand that the decision to impose furloughs imposes financial burdens on our valued employees, harms overall morale and corrodes the long-term ability of the department to carry out the national defense mission," Hagel said in the memo. "I deeply regret this decision."

However, Hagel did leave the option open to reduce the number of furlough days even further if the budget situation permits him to do so before the end of the fiscal year.

"As we get through the front end of this over the next few months, then we might be in a position to be able to knock that back. I can't promise that, I won't promise that. You deserve fair, honest, direct conversations and I'm not going to be cute with you at all," Hagel said at the town hall meeting. "This is where we are. We will continue to look at it. We will continue to do everything we can."

Congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts initially forced the Pentagon to warn that the bulk of its 800,000 civilians would be forced to take 22 unpaid days off - one in each of the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year. When lawmakers approved a new spending bill at the end of March, they gave the Pentagon greater latitude to find savings, and the furlough days were cut to 14.

Despite the reduction in furlough days, the American Federation of Government Employees union called the furlough announcement "outrageous."

"DoD's workforce is not only the government's largest, it also includes the largest number of hourly and low-paid federal workers. Many earn less than $12 per hour. Furloughs of 11 days will amount to a pay cut of 20 percent for the remainder of the year, and combined with three years of frozen pay levels, these cuts will send many into dire straits," said J. David Cox, national president of AFGE. "The administration's decision to impose such enormous economic pain on its own workforce, while continuing to lavish billions in new and unnecessary spending on wealthy contractors, is utterly shameful."

Under pressure from military leaders and members of Congress, the Pentagon will allow the Navy to avoid furloughs for tens of thousands of workers at shipyards. Civilians make up the bulk of the workforce at those facilities and are key to keeping production lines going and preventing major backlogs in the repairs of ships and combat vehicles.

Also exempted from the furloughs will be civilian intelligence workers in the National Intelligence Program - largely the CIA. But civilians funded in the Military Intelligence Program will be subject to the unpaid days off. Those would include workers in military intelligence agencies such as Special Operations Command and the Army, Air Force and Navy intelligence offices.

Other exempt workers include civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, as well as people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. As an example, some employees may be contractors or people working in facilities that pay for operations out of their earnings - such as some jobs in recreation or foreign military sales. Overall, defense officials say that about 15 percent of the department's civilian workforce will be exempt from the furloughs.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing deliberations.

Defense and military officials have been debating for weeks how to divide up the $7.5 billion-plus it now has the authority to shift from lower priority accounts to more vital operations and maintenance programs. While some argued to use the money to reduce or eliminate furlough days, others said it should be directed at other priorities, including flight and combat training and the massive effort to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan.