Hagel makes 'difficult choice,' civilian furloughs to begin July 8

Wednesday - 5/15/2013, 5:38am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Pentagon has reduced the number of days it will require its civilian workforce to be furloughed due to sequestration from 14 to 11 and is expanding its list of employees who will be exempt from the cash-saving measure.

The decision means roughly 680,000 DoD civilians will be required to take one day off per week without pay, cutting by half the number of furlough days DoD originally projected earlier this year when it was contending with both the prospect of a full-year continuing resolution and sequestration.

Now that a budget is in place, and with the expectation that it will be able to reprogram funds within its operating and maintenance accounts, DoD will be able to reduce but not entirely eliminate sequestration's impact to the civilian workforce, Defense secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday. The one-day-per-week furloughs, he said, will begin on July 8.

"Difficult choice, but we had to make it," he told an audience at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., a Pentagon annex, the workplace of 6,400 DoD employees, most of whom are civilians. "I tried everything. We did everything we could not to get to this. But that's where we are. The leaders of this institution know the hardship this decision puts on everybody and your families. That's the most distressing part of this decision. And I'm sorry about that."

A small percentage of savings

The furloughs will save DoD $1.8 billion in the current fiscal year, officials estimate, a meager amount of DoD's overall budget and also a small fraction of the $30 billion in reductions sequestration demands from the department's operating and maintenance accounts in the latter half of 2013.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

But Pentagon officials said sequestration doesn't permit DoD to buy fewer jet fighters or submarines in exchange for more civilian work hours or other O&M priorities. The department made a request to Congress for authority to transfer funds between its budget accounts earlier this year. The proposal would have let the Pentagon trade more operating funds for fewer acquisition funds, but lawmakers declined to approve the request.

As a result, Hagel said DoD has exhausted its ability to cut back on other areas of O&M spending without seriously impairing military readiness.

"We've cut maintenance, we've cut training," he said. "Our Army training is done for this fiscal year. We've had to bring Air Force wings down. We've had to idle ships. We got to a point where I could not responsibly go any deeper into cutting our core missions on readiness and training. I just couldn't do any more."

Including the exemptions Hagel approved in a Tuesday memo, roughly 680,000 out of DoD's civilian workforce of 800,000 will be furloughed and take an effective 20 percent pay cut between July 8 and Sept. 30 of this year.

"If we can do better, as we get through the front end of this over the next few months, we might be able to knock that back," he said. "I'm not going to be cute with you though. This is where we are, and we'll continue to look at it."

It's still unclear what precisely would need to happen in order for the furlough days to be reduced below 11.

But a senior defense official told reporters Tuesday that for starters, there would need to be no more unexpected costs or cuts to the DoD budget for the rest of the year. Congress also would need to approve a large reprogramming request that the Pentagon expects to send to Capitol Hill in the coming days. And individual managers and commanders across all the military services and agencies would have to do everything they possibly could to hold down their O&M spending to a level that's lower than what the Pentagon's currently projecting the "burn rate" to be for the remainder of the year.

All in this together

Some DoD components, notably the Navy and National Guard, have been arguing inside the walls of the Pentagon that they should be exempted from furloughs entirely, since they believe they've found other areas in their O&M accounts to absorb their share of the sequestration cuts. But Hagel's furlough decision forecloses that prospect. The Pentagon is sticking with its position that everyone needs to chip in.

"We're going in together, and we're going out together," he said. "No one's going to be protected more than anybody else. Everybody's budget's a little different, but we're all in this together. I can't allow this great institution that does so much for our country, with such great tradition and history, with such great people, to get picked apart inside by each other, and I won't allow that to happen."

There is one apparent caveat to that principle, which DoD officials could not immediately explain: the Department of the Navy has categorized far more employees as "essential to the safety of life and property" and therefore exempt from furlough than any other military service or DoD agency. In the Navy and Marine Corps, Hagel approved more than 7,500 exceptions in that category. The next closest contender is the Air Force, at 933 positions. The Army will exempt just 263. Also, DoD has agreed to exempt most of the Navy's civilian shipyard workers from furlough. Nearly 30,000 of those employees will be protected.

A senior defense official said those furloughs in particular would be especially disruptive.

"We did that for mission reasons. It's a very long planning process, a very long period for maintenance, and there's very little ability to catch up once you stop it," the official said.

Also, teachers in DoD schools will have a modified furlough schedule: five days instead of 11. That's a special case because those schools need to operate a certain number of days in order to provide a school year that matches up with national accreditation standards, officials said.

Other exceptions include some civilians who work in health care facilities and in child care centers. Employees who work at day care centers will be protected in order to "maintain safety standards and quality of care," Hagel's memo said.

Another 10,000 civilians who work in military medical treatment facilities are also exempt.

"These exceptions preserve the minimum level of personnel needed to maintain quality of care in 24/7 emergency rooms and other critical care areas such as behavioral health, wounded warrior support and disability evaluation. Furloughing these employees would result in unacceptable care being provided, and the department would incur increased costs for premium pay or TRICARE," Hagel wrote.

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