Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that if automatic government spending cuts kick in March 1, he might be forced to furlough the "vast majority" of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.
It's not yet clear the impact that might have at Beaufort County bases, however.
The Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort has 600 civilian employees, according to Executive Officer Lt. Col. Benjamin Clatterbuck.
"The Office of Management and Budget and the DOD are working closely to understand the law and assess its impacts," Clatterbuck said Wednesday. "MCAS Beaufort will continue to provide well-equipped and well-trained Marines, who remain ready to deploy."
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Attempts Wednesday to reach representatives of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort were unsuccessful. About 425 civilians are employed at the depot, officials there told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in late 2010.
In a written message to employees, Panetta said he notified members of Congress on Wednesday that if the White House and Congress cannot strike a deficit-reduction deal before March 1 to avoid the furloughs, all affected workers will get at least 30 days' advance notice.
The furloughs would be part of broad spending cuts the Pentagon would implement to achieve $46 billion in reductions through the end of this budget year, which ends Sept. 30. More cuts would come in future years as long as the automatic government spending cuts, known as sequestration, remained in effect.
"In the event of sequestration we will do everything we can to be able to continue to perform our core mission of providing for the security of the United States, but there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta wrote.
Pentagon officials have said the furloughs would be structured so that nearly all 800,000 workers lose one day of work per week for 22 weeks, probably starting in late April. That means they would lose 20 percent of their pay over that period.
What that would mean for the local economy is unclear, according to Retired Marine Col. John Payne, former air station commander and the chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee.
"I've heard what everyone else has heard," he said, adding that if the sequestration takes place "it's going to be really tough and everyone is pointing the finger at each other."
The Pentagon has begun discussing details of the furloughs with defense worker union officials.
President Barack Obama has exempted military personnel from furloughs.
The only civilian Pentagon workers who would be exempt from furloughs would be Senate-confirmed political appointees such as the defense secretary and deputy defense secretary, as well as a relatively small number of workers deemed essential to protect the safety of defense property and personnel.
Panetta said the administration is still working with Congress to avoid automatic budget cuts by reaching agreement on a deficit reduction plan.
Beaufort Gazette reporter Anne Christnovich contributed to this report.