SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — Nearly 4,500 civilian workers at Scott Air Force Base got some good news Tuesday when it comes to the number of unpaid furlough days they must take because of federal budget cuts because of the sequestration.
Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, announced he ordered the number of unpaid furlough days be cut to 11 days from the current 14, while allowing the Pentagon to exempt many thousands of additional employees from unpaid time off.
The furloughs are set to begin July 8, Hagel told Defense Department workers at a Pentagon facility in Washington, D.C.
The 11 days of furlough, one each week from July through September, are down from as many as 22 days of unpaid time off initially projected, and 14 days estimated more recently.
The Defense Department "did everything we could" to avert the unpaid time off, according to Hagel, who said he will reduce the number of days required, if possible, later in the year, according to news reports.
The 375th Air Mobility Wing, which oversees the air base, provided the following timeline for civilian worker furloughs:
* May 28 to June 5: Furlough proposal notices will be served to individual employees
* June 4 to June 12: Individual employee reply periods end seven calendar days from when the proposal was received.
* June 5 to July 5: Furlough decision letters will be served to individual employees.
* July 8: Furlough period begins no earlier than this date.
Meghan Walsh, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Government Employees, a labor union that represents about 1,800 Scott civilian workers, said she hoped Hagel would announce that no furloughs would occur.
"Eleven days is still 11 days," Walsh said. "It's still going to result in a big pay cut for our members."
The amended furlough schedule will affect about 680,000 Pentagon civilian workers, with 68,000 exempted. Active duty military personnel were already exempt from furloughs.
Originally, when the federal budget sequester took effect March 1, more than 700,000 civilian Pentagon employees were scheduled to take 22 furlough days between April and September.
Through the intervention of Congress, the furlough schedule for Defense Department workers was cut to 20 days and set to take effect until May.
Congressional and White House intervention last week averted the planned layoffs of control tower staff at 149 regional airports nationwide, including the St. Louis Regional Airport in Bethalto, and Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale.
And during a town hall meeting with about 6,400 department personnel in Northern Virginia, Hagel was direct: "I tried everything. We did everything we could not to get to this day this way. But that's it. That's where we are."
Telling the workers, he was sorry, Hagel said that after repeatedly going over the numbers, officials could not responsibly cut any deeper into training and other programs that affect the military's readiness for combat.
"We'll continue to search for ways to do better, but right now I can't run this institution into the ditch," he added.
Hagel said the department will be evaluating the budget situation and try to end the furloughs early if possible. But he and other officials also warned that while they will do all they can to avoid furloughs in the next fiscal year, they can't promise it won't happen.
Officials said the furloughs will save the Defense Department about $1.8 billion.
"I understand that the decision to impose furloughs imposes financial burdens on our valued employees, harms overall morale and corrodes the long-term ability of the department to carry out the national defense mission," Hagel said in the memo. "I deeply regret this decision."
J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the furloughs a slap in the face to civilians who live paycheck to paycheck. He said the department's decision "to impose such enormous economic pain on its own workforce, while continuing to lavish billions in new and unnecessary spending on wealthy contractors, is utterly shameful."
Under pressure from military leaders and members of Congress, the Pentagon will allow the Navy to avoid furloughs for tens of thousands of workers at shipyards. Civilians make up the bulk of the workforce at those facilities and are key to keeping production lines going and preventing major backlogs in the repairs of ships and combat vehicles.
Officials expect that civilian intelligence workers in the National Intelligence Program -- largely the CIA -- also will be exempt from furloughs. But civilians funded in the Military Intelligence Program will be subject to the unpaid days off. Those would include workers in military intelligence agencies such as Special Operations Command and the Army, Air Force and Navy intelligence offices.
Defense and military officials have been debating for weeks how to divide up the $7.5 billion-plus it now has the authority to shift from lower priority accounts to more vital operations and maintenance programs. While some argued to use the money to reduce or eliminate furlough days, others said it should be directed at other priorities, including flight and combat training and the massive effort to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan.
The Army, which is the largest service and has been carrying the bulk of the burden for the war in Afghanistan, also is facing massive bills for the removal of equipment from Afghanistan.