US military reduces civilian furlough days with budget cuts looming

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comAugust 7, 2013 

File photo: Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on July 25, 2013.

US MARINES CORPS

The U.S. military might have whittled down the number of furlough days civilian employees must take this year, but the president of Beaufort's government-workers union said more work has to be done to safeguard their future.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday that the number of furlough days for nearly 650,000 civilian employees will drop from 11 to six. Hagel's release said that a request approved by Congress allowed the Department of Defense to shift funds to help cover an $11 billion shortfall and curtail the furlough.

However, with furloughs still looming for the next decade and nearly $500 billion in military spending cuts under sequestration, Congress and the unions must continue efforts to limit furlough days over the next few years, local American Federation of Government Employees union president Sue Partridge said.

Partridge said the union was "thankful" for the reduction. Civilian employees had already taken four furlough days at the time of the announcement, she said.

She pointed to congressional efforts to prohibit furlough days as the first big step in ending them. A U.S. House of Representatives bill passed July 23 would ban furloughs for civilian employees during the 2014 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. The bill currently is in the U.S. Senate.

Future furloughs might not be the big issue, however: Hagel told an audience at Joint Base Charleston on Tuesday that not only would cuts get worse, but that layoffs were possible, according to the Associated Press.

THE LOCAL EFFECT

The federal government will spend about $1.2 trillion less over the next decade than if sequestration had not been enacted, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis. About $500 billion of that total will come from defense spending.

Facing $37 billion in cuts in the 2013 budget year, 11 furlough days were projected to save only about $2 billion.

"Our pot of money is just an easier pot of money to take from," Partridge said.

In 2014, the cuts will total about $52 billion, according to a Defense Department release.

Further furloughs and future layoffs could cause manpower problems at the bases. Civilian employees make up much of the support staff at Beaufort County's three military installations. Several civilian-staffed services -- such as the housing department, laundry services and public works -- were forced to shut down once a week because they could not operate only half-staffed during the furloughs, Partridge said.

"The bases are majorly affected by these furloughs," she said. "Nothing a Marine does at these bases is done without some kind of support staff interaction."

Additionally, furloughs forced the commissary at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island to shut down twice a week, according to a release from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

MCAS Beaufort commanding officer Col. Brian Murtha said in a statement Wednesday that he and other air station commanders are "committed to working through any budgetary impacts."

"I want to ensure that every civilian Marine, as well as every Marine and sailor, understands that I will do my utmost to ensure the Marine Corps continues to accomplish its missions while keeping faith with them," he said.

Partridge said her union chapter also filed an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board, a service that handles work disputes for federal employees. The board has seen an unprecedented 13,000 appeals of the furlough days, which all may be rolled together into one large class-action appeal, she added.

Partridge said continued furloughs will soon start affecting the local economy.

"The employees I talked to didn't spend any money during the tax-free weekend and they haven't spent any money for back to school shopping yet," she said. "They don't have the money to spend because they don't know what's going to happen in the future."

The Associated Press and The State staff writer Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

Related content:

Furlough days cut for Beaufort-area defense workers, Apr. 2, 2013

Federal workers union protests in Beaufort over sequestration cuts, Mar. 20, 2013

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