US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced unpaid furloughs will end next week after the Pentagon found money from other areas to cut the number of furlough days from 11 to six. (Staff file)
For hundreds of thousands of Defense Department civilian employees, unpaid furloughs will end next week after the Pentagon found money from other areas to cut the number of furlough days from 11 to six.
In a statement Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attributed the decision to several factors, including lower-than-expected costs for moving equipment out of Afghanistan and Congress’ approval late last month of a request to shift billions of dollars from acquisition accounts to operating activities.
For most of the 650,000 employees who have been shouldering one-day-a-week furloughs since early last month, Hagel’s decision means that unpaid time off will end next week instead of running through the end of the fiscal year in September, according to a senior defense official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
“I want to thank our civilian workers for their patience and dedication during these extraordinarily tough times,” Hagel said in the statement. “I know how difficult this has been for all of you and your families. Your contribution to national security is invaluable, and I look forward to one day putting this difficult period behind us.”
The furloughs are one small part of DoD’s strategy for closing a $37 billion sequester-related budget gap for 2013. As Hagel noted, however, a $52 billion reduction for next year is looming unless lawmakers and the Obama administration reach a deal to avoid it. While DoD will strive to avoid more furloughs if that cut occurs, “everything is on the table,” the senior defense official said, including reductions-in-force.
For at least some employees, the chance to return to work full-time was immediate grounds for celebration.
“I have nothing but good things to say about it,” Rebekah Uhtoff, a materials engineer at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport, Wash.. said in a phone interview after the announcement. “I can get the projects I have waiting accomplished and meet my family’s needs.”
Uhtoff was also “cautiously optimistic” about the outlook for next year, noting that the House recently voted to bar DoD furloughs as part of a recently passed 2014 spending bill. The Senate has not yet approved its version of the legislation.
Also hailing Hagel’s announcement were labor unions who have argued all along that furloughs are unneeded. But the head of the American Federation of Government Employees immediately urged Hagel to reimburse workers for lost income. That step, which would likely require congressional approval, “is the only fair thing to do,” AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement.
Besides eating into employees’ paychecks, the furloughs have landed a direct hit on workforce morale and affected productivity in areas ranging from depot maintenance of military equipment to on-time financial reporting. They have also prompted DoD employees to flood the Merit Systems Protection Board with appeals.
The MSPB, which normally handles about 7,000 cases per year, had received more than 20,000 by Monday, the bulk of them from furloughed Defense Department employees. As it struggles to deal with the deluge, the board announced last week that it was delaying the docketing and processing of all DoD furlough appeals. A spokesman declined comment Tuesday on whether the reduction in the number of furlough days would affect processing or adjudication of those cases.
For the Defense Department and other federal agencies, the sequester was triggered at the beginning of March. The across-the-board cuts were required by the 2011 Budget Control Act after lawmakers and the White House failed to agree on a long-term $1.2 trillion deficit reduction package.
Initially, the Pentagon had planned to furlough civilian employees for 22 days, but chopped that number to 11 under the timetable unveiled in mid-May. At the time, Hagel said he hoped to trim the total still further. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing late last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reiterated that goal, but suggested that a decision was still some time off.
“If we do find funds between now and the end of the year, we have two priorities,” Carter said. “One is to restore maintenance and the other is to relax furloughs. So that's what we're doing.”