Pentagon: Furlough for Scott civilian workers cut from 11 to six days

News-DemocratAugust 6, 2013 

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A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base.

SSGT CHAD R. GANN, USAF — Chad R. Gann, USAF

— Unpaid furloughs for the base's 4,500 civilian workers -- as well as nearly 700,000 other Defense Department employees -- were cut from 11 to six days, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

The unpaid one-day-per-week furloughs for Scott workers began July 8. With four furlough days already used up, base workers will now have only two more to go, said Karen Pettit, a spokeswoman for the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which oversees the base.

"Everybody's still seeing what the effects are," Pettit said.

The announcement that furlough days would be cut could hardly have come at a better time, said Doug Mehring, the local president for the National Association of Government Employees, which represents more than 2,000 Scott civilian workers.

"Last week when we got our paycheck on Friday, that was the first one with two days off of it," Mehring said. "You know it's coming, but it just shocked me to look at my paycheck and to see that much off of there, 20 percent off."

Col. Kyle Kremer, 375th Air Mobility Wing commander, issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon in which he said he could not be "more happy to hear the news about the reduction in furlough days, and expect to implement the change immediately."

This week marks the fifth week of furloughs, so next week -- Aug. 16 -- will mark the completion for most employees, Kremer said in the statement.

"We know the secretary of defense and entire department worked closely together to implement management initiatives, spending reductions and reprogramming efforts that helped offset budgetary shortfalls," Kremer said.

Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, ordered the furloughs in May because of more than $42 billion in budget cuts mandated through a process called sequestration -- the automatic budget-slashing mandate President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to in 2011 if they could not work out a compromise plan for reducing the federal budget.

By July, however, the Pentagon was able to reduce the number of furlough days after receiving permission from the U.S. Congress to move money around, as well as through internal cost-cutting efforts, according to published reports.

Originally, when the furloughs were set to go back in May, the Pentagon announced that its civilian workers would face 22 furlough days as a way to deal with sequester-mandated budget cuts.

That original furlough number of 22 was eventually whittled down to 11, and then to six with the help of Pentagon cost efficiencies and congressional approval to tap into reserve money.

Meghan Walsh, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Government Employees, called it a "huge concern" that the U.S. Congress still has failed to come up with alternatives to the federal budget sequester.

Because the law that authorized the sequester covers a full decade, federal workers could have nine more years of sudden and deep budget cuts unless lawmakers reverse the sequestration process, Walsh said.

Top Pentagon leaders have indicated that, in coming years, these deep budget cuts could result not in more furloughs, but in permanent reductions in force unless the U.S. Congress can "put aside all the partisan politics and really find a way to restore this fiscal security to the nation and find an alternative to sequestration," she said.

The furloughs and prospect of future job cuts have taken a toll on Pentagon employee morale, she said.

"I've heard from countless members that morale is low, not only because these people have taken a financial hit after three years of a pay freeze and changes to their retirement benefits," Walsh said.

But morale is also low because "they're not able to do this job that they know is so important and provide this service," she said.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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