Thousands of Defense Department employees in Pierce and Thurston counties are still facing the likelihood of unpaid time off this summer, but not as much as the Pentagon initially proposed.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday released a plan requiring about 680,000 civilian employees across the country to take 11 furlough days through the end of September.
The furloughs are scheduled to begin July 8 unless Congress allocates money to prevent the spending reduction, meaning workers will take off about one day a week for three months.
That’s down from an initial Pentagon furlough proposal that would have mandated 22 unpaid days off for more than 10,000 workers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and another 10,000 elsewhere in the Evergreen State.
Congress’ failure in March to avert the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration triggered the Defense Department’s furlough proposal. Hagel wrote in a memo to civilian employees that the Pentagon is facing a $37 billion shortfall this year.
Hagel wrote that each military service has already reduced training, purchases and maintenance for units that are not bound for South Korea and Afghanistan. Cutting more of those services would reduce military readiness for other missions, he wrote.
“Difficult choice, but we had to make it. And we – I tried everything. We did everything we could not to get to this – this day, this way. But that’s it. That’s where we are,” he said at a roundtable with Defense Department employees in Alexandria, Va.
The White House earlier this year released a report suggesting Washington State employees would lose $173.4 in take-home pay from the initial, 22-day furlough proposal. That sum has drawn congressional lawmakers back to the state several times this year to highlight communities that would be impacted most by the furloughs.
They again decried the furloughs after Hagel announced the new proposal.
“These furloughs are entirely due to the irresponsible decisions of Congress. Instead of working together to come up with a balanced, reasonable plan for reducing our deficit, most members of Congress have chosen to tacitly support harmful, thoughtless, across-the-board cuts. This approach is the worst possible way to reduce our deficit,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia.
Lewis-McChord spokesman Joe Piek said civilian employees are watching news about the furloughs. Furlough notices are expected to go out in late May. Until then, local military leaders are drafting plans about how to adjust schedules and reassign work to accommodate the unpaid time off.
Furlough notices were supposed to go out in early April, but Congress freed up some spending restrictions and the Defense Department was able to delay and adjust them.
“It’s just kind of on the simmer,” Piek said. “We basically have been waiting to hear what the results are going to be whether the number of days would be reduced, or whether the furloughs would occur,” he said.
The new furlough plan exempts Navy shipyard workers. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said that concession was good news for Navy workers in Kitsap County.
“While I’m pleased to see an exception from furloughs for employees at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, these across-the-board cuts and the resulting furloughs will affect our military readiness and have a negative impact on our local economy. These problems are entirely avoidable if Congress would get its act together and replace these across-the-board cuts altogether,” he said.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, voted against the budget plan that led to sequestration two years ago. He said in a written statement today from his office as the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee that Hagel’s announcement demonstrated why the forced cuts were a bad idea.
“The furloughs announced by the Department of Defense highlight another negative effect of sequestration. As this committee has said for almost two years, cutting government spending through sequestration will undermine our military readiness and hurt hard-working families. Today’s announcement once again proves that our assessment was accurate and that Congress must act to remove sequestration,” he said.