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DoD furloughs to take toll on productivity, employee pay

Jul. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
About 650,000 Defense Department civilian employees will take furloughs this week, slowing operations across the country and imposing a temporary 20 percent pay cut on a population the size of a midsize city.
About 650,000 Defense Department civilian employees will take furloughs this week, slowing operations across the country and imposing a temporary 20 percent pay cut on a population the size of a midsize city. (D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department)

Furloughs begin taking effect this week for some 650,000 Defense Department civilian employees, slowing operations across the country and imposing a temporary 20 percent pay cut on a population the size of a midsize city.

Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated late last month that he hoped to trim the amount of unpaid time off from the current total of 11 days, employees faced a scenario unfathomable to some only a half year ago.

“I never expected as a federal employee not to have the job security I’ve enjoyed for the last 12 years,” Rebekah Uhtoff, a mechanical engineer at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport, Wash., said in a phone interview.

For Uhtoff, the likelihood of losing $930 of her monthly gross pay has her scrambling to find ways to economize on supplies for her 9-year-old son, Gabe, who is confined to a wheelchair.

“It breaks my heart not being able to afford what he needs,” she said.

Federal employee unions were meanwhile redoubling their efforts to either persuade Congress to intercede or else make sure the Pentagon pays a stiff price in fending off administrative challenges.

The American Federation of Government Employees has been holding workshops to tutor DoD workers on how to appeal their furloughs to the Merit Systems Protection Board, said David Cann, the union’s director of field services and education.

Each appeal can take months to decide; some can generate voluminous paperwork.

The goal is to demonstrate to DoD officials “that their hasty decision to engage in furloughs is costlier than they had anticipated,” Cann said. Already, the MSPB has received more than 500 furlough-related appeals from DoD workers, although most have been rejected as premature, Clerk William Spencer said in an email.

A coalition of some 20 other unions is renewing efforts to persuade lawmakers to end the furloughs altogether.

“Our argument is that it’s critical to be able to support our military efforts around the world,” William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and chairman of the Federal Workers Alliance, said in an interview.

Alliance members will contact lawmakers in person, by phone and through social media. DoD had originally expected to impose 22 furlough days, but it cut that number in half, Dougan said, “and, with the right flexibility from Congress, they can do it again.”

The furloughs, which will affect about 85 percent of DoD’s civilian workforce, are expected to save about $1.8 billion of the $37 billion the Pentagon is losing to sequester-related budget cuts. Starting this week, affected employees will generally have to take one unpaid day off each week until the end of fiscal 2013 in September. In announcing DoD’s plans two months ago, a top official had said that about 680,000 civilians would be furloughed; the Pentagon has since revised that total to approximately 650,000.

DoD managers may not use contractors or members of the military to handle work that would normally be done by civilian employees, Assistant Defense Secretary Frederick Vollrath warned in a memo late last month.

Under federal law, “contractors are prohibited from being assigned or permitted to perform additional work or duties to compensate for the workload/productivity loss resulting from the civilian furlough,” Vollrath said in the June 28 memo. Using borrowed military manpower to compensate for the furloughs would be inconsistent with the department’s commitment “to protect the viability of the all-volunteer force,” he said.

Hagel has rebuffed calls to allow individual Defense bureaus and installations to avoid furloughs if they can afford to. “The best way for Congress to address all these concerns is to pass a balanced deficit reduction plan that the President can sign and then repeal sequestration,” DoD Comptroller Robert Hale said in a Friday response to 31 House members challenging the decision to furlough workers at depots and other installations that rely on “working capital funds.”

Such installations, which include the Navy’s Keyport center, as well as organizations like the Defense Logistics Agency, rely on revenue from the sale of goods and services to other parts of the government, instead of from direct congressional appropriations, to fund their budgets. By one congressional estimate, about 180,000 employees are paid through working capital funds and need not be furloughed.

“It appears that there are substantial legal and economic questions surrounding the decision to impose furloughs on these employees,” the bipartisan group said in the June 21 letter to Hagel.

Besides seeking DoD’s legal rationale, they asked Hagel to explain how furloughing those workers would reduce operating expenses this fiscal year and how much DoD expects to save as result.

Replying on Hagel’s behalf, Hale defended the Pentagon’s approach as both lawful and economical. Furloughing employees in working capital fund activities will save more than $500 milllion and give DoD the flexibility to reduce maintenance funding to meet “higher-priority needs,” Hale said in his July 5 response.

At the Keyport center, whose missions include manufacturing torpedoes, almost all 1,300 employees will be furloughed, apart from 13 who have been exempted because they work in foreign military sales, spokeswoman Silvia Klatman said in an email. The facility expects a 20 percent productivity drop during the furlough period, equating to a loss of 163,000 man hours, she said.

But employees like Uhtoff find it baffling that furloughs are proceeding even though she believes the installation has the money to avoid them. Overall, the workforce’s mood is “angry,” said Wayne Patterson, chairman of the Keyport division of the Bremerton Metal Trades Council, a union representing about 675 technicians and other employees at the installation.

The furloughs will hurt the Keyport center’s ability to compete for work against contractors, Patterson said. Employees know, he said, “that this is unnecessary ... and that they are going to get blamed for something that is not their fault.”

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