Pentagon starts 45-day countdown to civilian furloughs

Thursday - 2/21/2013, 5:59am EST

In its latest acknowledgement that sequestration now appears more likely than not, the Pentagon Wednesday sent Congress its official notification that it plans to furlough the vast majority of its civilian workforce in the second half of fiscal 2013.

The legally-required notification to lawmakers starts a 45-day clock before the Pentagon can begin imposing furloughs on its 780,000 civil servants. Actual furloughs would not begin until late April, said Robert Hale, the Pentagon's comptroller, and only will happen if Congress leaves sequestration on the books, forcing DoD to scrounge for any dollar it can find in its operation and maintenance accounts.

"This is one of the most distasteful tasks I have faced in my four years in this job," Hale told reporters Wednesday. "We feel we don't have any choice but to impose furloughs, even though we'd much prefer not to do it. We're more than 20 percent short in operations and maintenance with seven months to go [in the fiscal year]. We can't do reductions in force, especially at this point in the year. RIFs would cost us money because of unused leave and severance pay, so furloughs are really the only way we have to quickly cut civilian personnel funding."

The Pentagon said the furloughs will save it between $4-$5 billion in the current fiscal year — just a fraction of the $46 billion cut it would have to make up for if sequestration stays in effect.

A document officials distributed to reporters offers a state-by-state breakdown, estimating the local impacts the unpaid furloughs would have across the country in the remainder of 2013. Virginia tops the list with an estimated $661 million in reduced DoD payrolls. California is next at $420 million, followed by Maryland at $359 million.

Every service and agency will be affected

Furloughed employees would be told to stay home one day per week without pay between April and Sept. 30. If DoD has to implement unpaid leave, the Pentagon wants the furloughs to be spread equitably across every military branch and defense agency, though there will be civilian employees who will be declared exempt.

Those exemptions, Hale said, will be granted sparingly. But civilians deployed in combat zones will be declared off-limits, as will civilians who are required to "maintain the safety of life and/or property."

"But that's only to the extent that they have to do that," Hale said. "In other words, if there are 20 policemen on a base, they aren't all automatically exempted from furloughs. It's only to the extent that commanders and managers determine they have to exempt some or all of them."

Also, employees whose salaries are paid from non-appropriated funds are in the clear, as are foreign nationals working overseas, since their employment status is often complicated by status of forces agreements with foreign governments.

Hale noted, with some regret, that his own job is also safe from furlough.

"It's slightly embarrassing, but it's true. Political employees are exempt, by law," he said.

For the most part, furloughed employees shouldn't see any impact to benefits such as retirement, life insurance or health insurance, said Jessica Wright, the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.

Trickledown effect of unpaid leave

But, she said the lost wages and the loss of civilian employees' services will take a severe toll on the military, local economies and individual DoD employees, whether they're in uniform or not.

"The effects of sequestration and the continuing resolution on our military personnel will be devastating, but on our civilians, it will be catastrophic," she said. "These critical members of our workforce, they work in our depots, they maintain and repair our tanks, our aircrafts, our ships. They teach our kids, they care for our children. They provide medical treatment to all of our beneficiaries. They take care of our wounded warriors. They provide services and programs such as sexual assault prevention and suicide prevention, just to name a few. The first, the second, and the third-order effects of sequestration will be felt in local commands and local communities all over the United States and, clearly, all over the globe. This is not a Beltway phenomenon."

Now that DoD has made its notification to Congress, it's telling the military services to begin identifying employees who should be exempted from furlough. At some point in mid-March, Defense civilians will get letters telling them that they can expect to be furloughed. Thirty days later, they'll receive notification that they're going to be furloughed, and will then have one week to appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board.