Marvin D. Mervin spent 20 years in the Army fixing and maintaining all kinds of military vehicles, from tanks to trucks. Seven years ago, he took off the uniform and became a civilian mechanic working on vehicles at Fort Jackson.
On July 8, Mervin and about 11,400 other civilian workers on the state’s five military bases will have to take one day off each week without pay for 11 weeks, due to across-the-board cuts caused by last August’s debt ceiling deadlock in Congress.
This year’s furloughs represent 20 percent of Mervin’s pay through Sept. 30, and he expects more furloughs in the next fiscal year. The 45-year-old father of four said that is going to have a big effect on his monthly budget.
“You have to cut back on your spending,” he said. “Do you want to go out to eat? That’s a luxury now. You just have to budget 20 percent less.”
The military pumps $16 billion into South Carolina’s economy each year, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. And the across-the-board cuts caused by last year’s debt ceiling debacle are going to have a ripple effect, particularly in the state’s four main military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort – said Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, who also serves as one of the state’s civilian aides to the secretary of the Army.
“It’s already begun to have an impact,” he said. “A lot of those people are minimum wage, and they aren’t going out to eat. They aren’t going to the movies.”
Fort Jackson has 3,500 civilian workers, who collectively are paid $51 million annually. The 20 percent furlough for the remainder of the fiscal year means those workers will have $2.55 million less to spend on gas, food, entertainment and other commodities. Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter employs another 1,340 civilian workers with a payroll of $59 million. The furloughs will cost Sumter’s local economy $2.95 million this year.
McLeese blamed Congress for forcing the Pentagon to make across-the-board cuts as part of the budget ax that dropped after lawmakers could not reach a compromise during last year’s debt ceiling debate.
“That’s no way to run a government,” he said.
Further cuts ahead
The furloughs are part of the automatic spending cuts — called the sequester — that took effect March 1. The military furloughs are expected to save about $2.5 billion this year.
Initially, the Pentagon had mandated 22 furlough days, but thanks to military appropriations in a continuing budget resolution passed by Congress in May, the number was reduced to 11 days.
The resolution averted about $6 billion in cuts that would have been required by the sequester.
But the military still faces about $500 billion in across-the-board cuts over the next 10 years unless Congress and the president can find an alternative. The cuts come on top of $487 billion in reductions already targeted by the Pentagon — together equaling about 18 percent of the 2012 defense budget.
“This is a double whammy and will have a big impact on our communities,” said Bill Bethea of Bluffton, chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force. Gov. Nikki Haley appoints the task force to protect and expand missions at the state’s six military bases and support its defense contractors and S.C. National Guard.
New budget realities
Furloughs alone will not make up for the cuts.
The Army also has announced that it will reduce the number of its brigade combat teams from 43 to 32 and cull 80,000 troops from its ranks — a move that could eventually affect the number of soldiers trained at Fort Jackson. The Army’s largest basic training post turns out about 50,000 new soldiers each year and is also home to the Army’s drill sergeant school.
Fort Jackson already has halted some facility maintenance at the base, has cut back hours at its gates because of furloughs of civilian security guards and has announced a more modest Fourth of July celebration.
The Air Force has grounded one-third of its aircraft — including one of three squadrons of F-16 fighters based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. Shaw’s 20th Fighter Wing — the nation’s largest F-16 wing — also has ceased flyovers for events such as the July Fourth Salute from Shore event along the South Carolina coast.
The Marines also are adjusting to the new budget realities. The Marine Corps Air Station-Beaufort has canceled its annual Air Expo, which was to feature the Navy’s Blue Angels.
“People are going to have to adjust,” McLeese said.
Hospital staff affected
Fort Jackson has about 3,500 civilian employees. The largest concentration of those civilian employees — 700 — is at the Moncrief Army Community Hospital. Some workers there said the furloughs are unnecessary and could affect their ability to care for the young recruits going through basic training, especially in the summer, when heat-related injuries are the highest.
“This is the worst time of year to enact furloughs,” said Joanna Baker, a laboratory information officer who has worked at Fort Jackson for 45 years.
Baker added that she thought it was unfair that some civilian employees were exempt from the furloughs on a directive from the Department of Defense. In addition to firefighters, police, first responders and child development workers — which are considered vital to the operation of military installations — the department also exempts all workers in its military sexual assault programs and Warrior Transition Units, which treat soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury.
Sexual assault, PTSD and brain injuries are issues that are presently drawing national headlines. But Baker complained that people working on those problems are no more vital than civilian workers caring for young soldiers undergoing basic training.
“It’s political,” she said.
Of the 627 workers at the hospital, 65 are exempt, according to a hospital spokesman. The spokesman said hospital commander Col. Mark Higdon has asked for 95 other exemptions for hospital workers as well but hasn’t heard back from Southern Regional Medical Command, based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
In an interview Friday, Higdon said that even if the additional furloughs are not granted, steps will be taken to ensure that the young soldiers in training will be sufficiently cared for.
“We’ve been through tough times before, and we’ll get through this,” he said. “Our soldiers are our No. 1 priority and we’re not going to compromise their care.”
For workers like Mervin, the civilian mechanic at Fort Jackson, the tough times are just beginning.
He said he will try to stick it out through the furloughs, but if they continue in the next fiscal year, he might have to consider moving to a civilian job outside the base.
“I love working for the military,” he said. “I love giving back, trying to help the Army as much as I can. But if I can’t make ends meet, I’ll have to do what I have to do.”
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.