LETTERKENNY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — This small industrial community amid the farmlands of Franklin County knows how to face adversity: About 4,000 people lost their jobs in the early 1990s when one of the county’s biggest employers — the Letterkenny Army Depot — began paring back work after the end of the Cold War.
Residents are bracing to take another hit by the depot, which provides about $250 million each year to the local economy of mostly mom-and-pop businesses. On Friday, its civilian workers will begin taking unpaid leave to help the Pentagon balance its books.
“It’s a 20 percent pay cut every payday,” said Jerry Mellott, a depot worker and president of the National Federation of Federal Employees’ Local 1429. “It really hits you in the wallet.”
It’s more than the financial hit that has upset workers at the depot, where Army missiles and vehicles are maintained, repaired and stored as part of the Army Aviation and Missile Command. The welders, machinists, mechanics and inspectors who work here took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic” — and they consider their jobs as duties to protect troops in the battlefield.
Pride — in work, family and community — runs deep. About 42 percent of the depot’s civilians and contractors are veterans, and the workforce’s average age is 45.4.
“It takes the wind from your sails,” one depot employee said of the furloughs. “We don’t just sit at a desk and push papers: We work with our hands. So telling us not to come to work one day a week is like telling the mailman he can’t deliver the mail.”
Factory walls prominently display posters and framed photographs of troops whose lives have been saved by vehicles repaired at Letterkenny, and some of those service personnel have visited the depot to thank the workers personally for their lifesaving labors.
One shows Sgt. Ryan German of 1st Battalion, 1st Marines Division, who visited the depot after his armored vehicle survived a 400-pound roadside bomb in Iraq on Aug. 25, 2007.
Several of its machines are dedicated to service members who have given their lives for their country. One is dedicated to Army Green Beret Master Sgt. Benjamin F. Bitner, who was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on April 23, 2011.
“We are proud to dedicate the Bitner Positioner in memory of MSG Benjamin F. Bitner, Greencastle, Pennsylvania, for his honorable service and for making the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of liberty and the cause of freedom,” a plaque reads. The positioner is used to help repair vehicles that protect troops from roadside bombs.
Situated about 100 miles north of the nation’s capital, the Letterkenny Army Depot employs about 2,600 civilians and contractors who will be subject to furloughs. The Pentagon has directed about 650,000 of its 800,000 civilian employees to begin taking 11 days of unpaid leave before the start of the next fiscal year, Oct. 1.
The furloughs will take an economic toll here, where the per capita income is $25,298 and the median household income is $51,171, according to the Census Bureau. Some residents are trying to figure out how to get by on less, even as the national economy supposedly is improving.
“I’m definitely concerned,” said Toby Coy, a depot supervisor from Shippensburg, Pa., and father of three, ages 13, 19 and 22. He said he may have to cancel the family’s summer vacation this year.
Since March, the depot has brought in financial counselors to advise and assist workers in debt and credit management, and budgeting, as well as coping with anxiety and depression.
Pentagon officials say the civilian furloughs are necessary to meet the demands of a curtailed budget. Since March 1, the Defense Department has been forced to trim about $500 billion in spending over the next 10 years via automatic budget cuts called sequestration, the result of lawmakers’ failure to agree on how to close the $1.3 trillion deficit.