Military trims furlough days to 6 softening economic impact on SC

jwilkinson@thestate.comAugust 6, 2013 

— INSIDE

The U.S. military has lowered from 11 to 6 the number of days its civilian workers must take off without pay by the end of the fiscal year, according to a Department of Defense release.

That means workers’ paychecks won’t suffer as much as they had planned for, which should soften the blow to the local economy.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon found sufficient savings in the final months of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, to lower the number of furlough days. Officials said last week that they would need to find about $900 million in savings in order to eliminate five of the 11 furlough days.

There are 650,000 civilian workers in the military, with 11,500 in South Carolina.

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 having a ripple effect, particularly in the state’s four main military communities – Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort.

Fort Jackson has 3,500 civilian workers, who collectively are paid $155 million annually. The 20 percent furlough for the remainder of the fiscal year would have cost those workers $2.55 million, meaning less money for 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 would have cost Sumter’s local economy $2.95 million this year.

Now those lost wages have been cut nearly in half, likely meaning workers won’t have to cut their spending as much and the impact on surrounding communities should be softer.

“It’s a great relief,” said retired two-star Air Force Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, who is director of the Sumter Partnership for Progress. “We were looking at a 20 percent pay cut. Now that’s around 10 percent, which is a lot more manageable for a household. It’s significant.”

The furloughs have riled department employees and prompted many to complain directly to Hagel during his visits to military bases in recent weeks – including a trip to Joint Base Charleston on July 17.

During the visits here and in North Carolina and Florida, Hagel was peppered with questions by civilian defense employees worried about the furloughs and their job security. Some were surprised when the Pentagon chief warned that budget cuts likely would continue next year, probably triggering more furloughs and possibly, layoffs.

But Holland said he doesn’t believe that will happen. With more time to plan, he believes the Pentagon probably will find other ways to trim the budget without the unpopular furloughs.

“I may be wrong,” he said. “But they will have time to plan for other areas to cut.”

Hagel has been saying that budget people were trying to find savings to shorten the furlough time. But officials also have cautioned that the savings are for this year only, and won’t affect likely budget cuts in 2014, if Congress doesn’t act to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts slated for next year.

The 11 furlough days were expected to save roughly $2 billion.

Officials said the savings are the result of a number of things, including penny-pinching by the military services and Congress’ decision to give the Pentagon more flexibility in moving money around between accounts. They indicated that budget crunchers moved money from lower priority accounts in order to free up money to reduce the furloughs and provide additional resources to other programs that directly affect the military’s readiness for combat.

Facing $37 billion in budget cuts this year, Pentagon leaders initially announced the 11 furlough days, arguing they needed to shift money to other priorities, including combat training, flight hours, and efforts to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan. Since then, budget chiefs have been analyzing the numbers in a persistent effort to find unspent dollars as they neared the end of the fiscal year.

A law enacted two years ago ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deal, but they have been unable to do so. The Pentagon, as a result, is facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade. For the 2014 budget year, that will mean a reduction of up to $54 billion from current spending totals.

About 85 percent of the department’s civilians have been subject to furloughs. The bulk of the exempt employees are foreign nationals or workers not paid through appropriated funding. Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence workers are also exempt, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards, where officials worried that the harm to shop maintenance would end up costing more than the salary cuts would save.

The Associated Press contributed.

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