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Pentagon awash in pink slips, preparing 800,000 civilian furloughs

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Defense Department on Wednesday officially notified Congress that it plans to begin furloughing its 800,000 civilian employees across the country if automatic spending cuts begin March 1, estimating the states would lose a total of $4.86 billion in workers' wages this year.

According to Pentagon estimates, among the hardest-hit states would be Virginia, which would have about 88,000 affected workers and salary losses of $660.9 million; California, with 62,600 workers and $419.7 million in lost wages; and Maryland, with 45,700 workers and $359.3 million in lost earnings.

"This is not a Beltway phenomenon," Jessica L. Wright, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told reporters at the Pentagon. "More than 80 percent of our civilians work outside of the D.C. metro area. They live and work in every state of the union."

Under the furlough plan, civilian workers would be forced to take one day of unpaid leave each week for 22 weeks from late April through September, costing them about 20 percent of their pay during that time, Pentagon officials said.

In a written message, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told civilian workers that they "will be provided at least 30 days' notice prior to executing a furlough and your benefits will be protected to the maximum extent possible."

He added that the Pentagon "also will work to ensure that furloughs are executed in a consistent and appropriate manner."

Mr. Panetta noted that the department has been funded by a continuing resolution that has limited spending to 2012 levels and said the effects of sequestration may be felt more intensely because of it.

"In the event of sequestration, we will do everything we can to be able to continue to perform our core mission of providing for the security of the United States, but there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," said Mr. Panetta, who flew Wednesday to Brussels to attend a NATO meeting.

Adding his voice to the budget debate Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the fiscal impasse is a serious threat to the country's standing in the world.

"Think about it: It is hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don't resolve our own," Mr. Kerry said at the University of Virginia.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, put the blame for the budget impasse on President Obama, saying with Mr. Panetta's assessment that automatic spending cuts would devastate the military.

Mr. Boehner released a copy of Mr. Panetta's letter formally notifying Congress of the furlough plans.

"The furloughs contemplated by this notice will do real harm to our national security," said Mr. Panetta, who is expected to leave office shortly. "Overall, sequestration will put us on a path toward a hollow force and inflict serious damage on our national security."

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called Mr. Panetta's announcement "sad but not unexpected news."

"These men and women, many of whom have dedicated their careers to their country, deserve better than to be treated as pawns in a game of political brinkmanship," Mr. McKeon said. "Unfortunately, while my colleagues and I were sounding the alarm and finding solutions, the commander in chief was persistently unengaged, refusing to allow the Pentagon to plan for these cuts."

The Budget Control Act of 2011 requires automatic, across-the-board cuts of more than $1 trillion over the next decade if Congress and the White House do not reach a budget deal. The Pentagon would account for about $500 billion of the 10-year reduction, with $46 billion to be cut from defense spending by Sept. 30.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, issued a statement criticizing the cuts.

"These are tremendous economic hits for all of our members. An employee in the middle of the pay scale, earning about $50,000 a year, takes home between $500 and $600 a week after subtracting health insurance, retirement and taxes. Taking away one day's pay every week could mean the difference between covering the mortgage and putting food on the table," said J. David Cox Sr., AFGE's national president.

"These employees aren't some fat cat bureaucrats in a plush Washington office," Mr. Cox said. "They are the firefighters who safeguard our bases, the health care professionals who treat injured soldiers in military hospitals, the mechanics who repair our tanks and planes, the logistics personnel who ensure supplies make it to our troops, the acquisition experts who prevent big defense contractors from ripping off taxpayers."

The Pentagon's spending reduction also has affected the private contractors who provide goods and services to the military.

On Wednesday, BAE Systems Inc. issued a layoff notice to about 3,500 of its staff in Virginia, Florida, California and Hawaii under the Warn Act.

"I feel great sympathy for the 1,600 shipyard workers and their families receiving Warn notices today," said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"As the Pentagon notifies ... civilians about potential furloughs, I'm still not willing to accept that the sequester has to happen," Mr. Kaine said. "All that's required is a willingness for leaders of both parties to take responsibility for this self-inflicted crisis and find a reasonable compromise."

Pentagon officials said that about 50,000 civilian workers would be exempt from the furloughs, mostly foreign nationals who are stationed overseas but work on U.S. bases and in some cases paid by their governments or hired under bilateral agreements. Senate-confirmed political appointees are exempt from furloughs by law.

Some, but not all, "mission-critical" employees — those responsible for protecting life and property — may be exempted.

"If there are 20 policemen on a base ... they're not all automatically exempted from furloughs — only to the extent that commanders and managers determine they have to exempt some or all of them in order to maintain a safety in life and property," Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale told reporters.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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