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The Defense Department Wednesday will furlough almost 800,000 employees — essentially its entire civilian workforce — beginning in late April.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today told Congress and Defense employees that the department will be forced to furlough almost all of its civilian employees if the budget cuts known as sequestration take effect March 1 and are not quickly averted.
In a Pentagon briefing with reporters, undersecretary of Defense and comptroller Robert Hale said the department will not issue layoffs, known as reductions in force (RIFs), this year. Hale said that, this late in the fiscal year, paying RIFed employees for their unused leave and severance pay would actually cost the Pentagon money. But Hale did not rule out the possibility of RIFs next year.
Hale said the Pentagon will notify employees in mid-March that they are likely to be furloughed. Because employees must have 30 days advance notice before they are furloughed, the Pentagon will officially tell employees they are furloughed in mid-April. Employees will then have one week to appeal their furlough to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and if their appeal is unsuccessful, they will then be furloughed.
"The bottom line is furloughs would not actually start for DoD employees until late April," Hale said. "And we certainly hope that in the interim, Congress will act to detrigger sequestration or … to take some short-term action while they're dealing with the broader issue. Meanwhile, unfortunately, we'll have to continue our planning for furloughs. Frankly, this is one of the most distasteful tasks I have faced in my four years in this job."
Hale and the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, Jessica Wright, said very few civilian employees will be exempted from furloughs, though they could not say how many. Civilian employees deployed in combat zones will not be furloughed, Hale said.
Employees who are needed to maintain the safety of life or property also will be exempted, Hale said, but only as much as needed to maintain that safety. Political appointees also will not be furloughed because they are paid through non-appropriated funds, he said. And foreign nationals employed by the military abroad will not be furloughed.
The Pentagon has ordered military services and Defense component agencies to prepare a list of employees to be exempted from furloughs by March 1, and the Pentagon will then review that list to make sure exempted employees meet requirements.
Employees will likely be furloughed for one day per week for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September.
Wright said such vast civilian furloughs would have devastating effects on the entire military — including retirees and family members who depend on the services those employees provide. The Pentagon is working with the Department of Defense Education Activity to try to limit the harm furloughs will do to military-run schools, she said. And 40 percent of Defense's medical providers are civilians, and will likely be furloughed as well, Wright said.
Commissary hours also may be cut short because of furloughs, she said. And some other family programs may be affected.
"Sequestration will be significant, not only to our civilian employees, but to the service men and women and their families," Wright said. "It will affect local communities, it will affect local businesses, it will affect our dedicated men and women who live in the local communities."
Furloughs could hurt military recruiting because civilian employees often conduct physical examinations and other tests for potential new recruits, Wright said.
And civilian employees working at depots around the country maintain much of the military's equipment, Wright said. They also run training ranges on military bases, she said, and losing those employees to furloughs will significantly harm military training efforts.
Wright said that 80 percent of Defense's civilian workforce lives outside of the Washington area. Employees in states like California, Georgia, and Texas are each likely to lose more than $200 million due to the furlough, according to a payroll chart provided by the Pentagon.
Furloughs would likely cut Defense's civilian payroll by almost $4.9 billion, the Pentagon said. If sequestration goes into effect, Defense will have to cut $46 billion by the end of September.