SUMTER, SC — Looming furloughs for civilian Air Force employees in Sumter will take a big chunk out of those workers' take-home pay and out of the local economy.
Because of mandatory budget cuts brought on by sequestration, some 2,000 civilians employed by Shaw Air Force Base face 11 days off without pay this year. Furlough days at the base will be staggered so each employee will take one day off a week between July 8 and Sept. 30.
When employees take furlough days will ultimately be decided by the employees affected and the commanders over their departments, said Lt. Earon Brown, a public affairs officer with the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw. Mission needs will also determine when and how furloughs are handled, Brown said.
"The mission will continue on as it has from day one," he said.
It's unclear how much of an impact the sequestration cuts will have on the economy. An earlier report in The State estimated a proposed 14-day furlough at Shaw and Fort Jackson could cost the Sumter and Columbia region $14.3 million. Speaking to a meeting of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce last month, then commander of the 9th Air Force Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells said furloughs at Air Force installations throughout South Carolina would have an $11.3 million impact on the state economy.
In Sumter, local business leaders are worried what the impact of the furloughs could be on their business.
"We definitely feel there could be a significant hit with retail if they put off major spending on things like cars and furniture," said Grier Blackwelder, president of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce. "We know it's going to hurt, we just don't know how extensive it's going to be."
Blackwelder was able to offer one measure of the furloughs' impact: every week an employee is home for one day means the loss of one-fifth of their paycheck.
That money saved will go toward reducing the Defense Department's contributions to federal sequestration. Brown cited an estimated $1.8 billion in savings from the furlough of civilian defense employees nationwide.
Notices of the furlough period were mailed to civilians starting May 28, corresponding to the end of the federal government's fiscal year at the end of September. Sequestration cuts requiring billions of cuts to the Defense Department's budget only came into play on March 1, and the armed forces have been adjusting their response as the cuts are implemented across the services, barring any action from Congress changing how the cuts can be implemented.
"Everybody knew (sequestration) would be a travesty if it occurred, both from a personnel standpoint and an operational capacity standpoint, because of the lack of flexibility the (military) leadership has to save money," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William "Dutch" Holland, who has acted as a liaison between Shaw and the city of Sumter. Holland also is worried how the furloughs could affect operations, especially with absences planned to run to the end of the fiscal year.
"You might have a civilian in the comptroller's office trying to close out the budget year, and he'll be out during the most critical time of the year," he said.
Officials cited the furloughs as a direct impact of sequestration cuts on the local economy. "The civilians have gotten less attention than the 77th Fighter Squadron being grounded," Blackwelder said. "That's not an economic issue, because they're still getting paid... The bigger story is really civilian employees getting their pay cut by 20 percent."
Cuts to federal spending is meant to continue under sequestration for the next decade, but Blackwelder hopes the program will be brought to an end long before that. "Sequestration can't end soon enough," he said.