WASHINGTON – 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, which would include more than 6,000 workers in New Mexico.
Only limited exceptions will be allowed for the military to avoid or reduce the unpaid days off.
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.
Kirtland Air Force Base officials said the plans would affect 2,100 Defense Department-funded civilian employees at the base.
Affected workers will take 16 to 20 furlough hours during the first pay period after the furloughs take effect, Kirtland spokeswoman Marie Vanover said Tuesday. After that, employees can request consecutive furlough days.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which employs about 750 civilian employees at Kirtland, said a number of cost-savings measures taken since the planned furloughs were announced in March will spare those employees from having to take unpaid time off.
Civilian employees at other military installations in New Mexico also will feel the effects of the congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts, or “sequestration.”
White Sands Missile Range employs about 2,450 civilian personnel, said public affairs chief Monte Marlin, though most – but not all of them – work for the Defense Department.
Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo has 840 civilian workers facing potential furloughs, according to the 49th Wing’s public affairs office.
A spokesman for Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis said the base employs about 630 civilians.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a memo to the department, called the decision “an unpleasant set of choices” between furloughing workers or cutting training and flight operations.
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 do all they can to avoid furloughs in the next fiscal year, they can’t promise it won’t happen.
“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.”
The 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 Associated Press’ Lolita C. Baldor and Journal staff writer Charles D. Brunt produced this report.