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.
Tuesday's announcement of the mandatory unpaid days off does not come as good news for civilian Department of Defense employees working at both Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and Yuma Proving Ground.
Capt. Staci Reidinger, public affairs director for MCAS Yuma, and Yuma Proving Ground spokesman Chuck Wullenjohn both said while the furlough days will not affect their base's mission readiness, officials at both installations are waiting for instructions from their respective headquarters about how they will be implemented.
“There has been no formal guidance released to us from our higher headquarters,” Wullenjohn said. “Most of what we know now comes from media reports. Until that guidance comes, we will be taking no actions regarding furlough activities. We expect guidance to come soon.”
Reidinger added that civilian employees will be given 30 days' notice before any furloughs are scheduled and that the commands they are assigned to will work with employees to determine how to best meet both work requirements and their needs.
She said civilian employees have also been offered unemployment insurance briefings as well as seminars to discuss how to budget finances and/or supplement income during the furlough.
Wullenjohn, after checking with the base's personnel director, said he has not heard of employees expressing concerns over the furloughs yet but expects the situation to become clearer in the next few days.
“I think the general hope among YPG civilians is that the number of furlough days will go down to zero, rather than 11. That's the direction things have been going,” Wullenjohn said. “However, (Defense) Secretary (Chuck) Hagel seemed very direct and forthright in his comments this afternoon, so I just don't know.”
About 400 civilians at MCAS Yuma are paid out of appropriated funds, while another 400-500 civilians are paid through nonappropriated dollars. About 700 civilians are directly employed at the U.S. Army's YPG.
Defense Secretary Hagel, in a memo to the department, called the decision “an unpleasant set of choices” between furloughing workers or cutting training and flight operations.
And during a town hall meeting with about 6,400 department personnel in northern Virginia, Hagel was direct: “I tried everything. We did everything we could not to get to this day this way. But that's it. That's where we are.”
Telling the workers he was sorry, Hagel said that after repeatedly going over the numbers, officials could not responsibly cut any deeper into training and other programs that affect the military's readiness for combat. He added, “We'll continue to search for ways to do better, but right now I can't run this institution into the ditch.”
Hagel said the department will be evaluating the budget situation over time and will try to end the furloughs early if at all possible. But he and other officials also warned that while they will work to avoid furloughs in the next fiscal year, they can't promise it won't happen.
The furlough notices are expected to begin going out May 28, and workers will have several days to respond or seek appeals. The unpaid days off would begin no sooner than July 8, according to the memo. Officials said the furloughs will save the department about $1.8 billion.
“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.”
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, which ends on Sept. 30. 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.
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.
Officials expect that civilian intelligence workers in the National Intelligence Program — largely the CIA — will be exempt from furloughs. 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.
In addition, officials said that nearly 11,000 Defense Department school staff and teachers will be furloughed for up to five days, in order to avoid any effects on accreditation.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the decision.