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Civilian furloughs expected to be hit hard


SUN Columnist

Most of the 800,000 Department of Defense civilian employees will see their workweeks shortened and their pay cut by 20 percent from late April through September if Congress, as now expected, fails to stop $46 billion in indiscriminate defense budget cuts set to take effect March 1.

With lawmakers on a nine-day President’s Day recess, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially notified Congress Feb. 20 of the department’s intent to furlough the “vast majority” of its civilian workers.

This, he said, will be necessary if Republicans and Democrats continue to refuse to negotiate a “balanced” debt-reduction deal to defuse or delay the “sequestration” budget bomb built into the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The furloughs would capture about $5 billion of needed savings, but would hit overall readiness along with other plans to cut stateside base operations, reduce military training except for next-to-deploy units, delay maintenance of ships, aircraft, vehicles and facilities, suspend many scheduled ship deployments and make deep cuts in aircraft flying hours.

Panetta’s letter starts a 45-day clock required by law to begin the massive furlough.  It gives the services and defense agencies time to recommend individuals or categories of employees for exemption from the furlough, which can mean a total of 22 days’ unpaid leave through Sept. 30.

Civilians working in combat zones will be exempt, as will employees needed to maintain safety of life and property at defense facilities.  Exemptions are expected for some civilians working intelligence, too.

Also to be exempt will be 50,000 foreign nationals who work on U.S. bases overseas under status of forces agreements with host countries. Exempt by law are all non-appropriated fund employees who work in base exchanges or who run military morale, welfare and reaction activities.

Most commissary employees would not be exempt, however, because their wages are paid with tax dollars.  So base grocery store hours and some other family support programs could be cut if sequestration occurs.

By mid-March, employees not exempt will get individual notices of likely furlough, to start in 30 days. They will have one week to appeal that decision to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board.  So the first defense civilians won’t see their work hours cut until late April.

“The effects of sequestration and the continuing (budget) resolution on our military personnel will be devastating.  But, on our civilians, it will be catastrophic,” warned Jessica Lynn Wright, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“These critical members of our workforce,” added Wright, “maintain and repair tanks, aircraft and ships, teach in military schools, operate day care centers and are 40 percent of staff in base hospital and clinics.

“They take care of our wounded warriors.  They provide services and programs such as sexual assault prevention and suicide prevention, just to name a few,” she said.

A 20-percent pay cut for five months, “won’t only be felt by each employee,” Wright added, but also by nearby communities.

“While civilians will experience the impact directly to their wallets, our service members, retirees and families will clearly feel the effect of these actions.  If sequestration is not averted, the associated furloughs will impact our war fighters, our veterans and our family members in untold ways.”

At the same Pentagon press conference Wednesday, Robert F. Hale, the department’s chief financial officer, urged Congress to pass a “balanced” deficit reduction package to “de-trigger sequestration” and also to pass a fiscal 2013 defense appropriation bill to replace a continuing budget resolution which has frozen defense spending below fiscal 2012 levels.

Hale dismissed the idea that Congress only needs to give defense officials flexibility to rebalance billions of dollars between budget accounts.

“I don’t think it would help that much this far into the fiscal year,” Hale said.  “And if it makes sequestration more likely, to either occur or persist, I think it’s a bad deal, the flexibility.”

Hale warned that if sequestration is triggered and stays in effect into fiscal 2014 and beyond, furloughs this year would turn into job losses and into deeper military personnel cuts, forcing leaders to draft a new defense strategy that would recognize reduced capabilities and a smaller force.

Trust Fund

The Trust Fund Grant has directed a change of rules. All requests for travel/lodging reimbursement must have the following: Printed copy of appointment, copy of receipt for gas payment and/or receipt of lodging payment. Payment from Trust Fund will be to the amount on receipts: No receipt-no payment.

Ensure you apply for Travel through VAMC Albuquerque, whenever possible.

If a veteran is eligible for VA Travel payments, no reimbursements are authorized through the Trust Fund Grant.

Benefits

For information on VA benefits, call or stop by the Archuleta County Veterans Service Office, located at the Senior Center in the Ross Aragon Community Center.

The office number is 264-4013, fax number is 264-4014, cell number is 946-3590, and e-mail is raytaylor@archuletacounty.org. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Bring your DD Form 214 (Discharge) for applications to VA programs or benefits for which the veteran may be entitled to enroll, and for filing in the Archuleta County VSO office.

Meetings

The following veterans groups meet in Pagosa Springs:

American Legion Post 108: second Wednesday of the month, 7 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.

American Legion Post 108 Ladies Auxiliary: second Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.

Veterans for Veterans: every Tuesday, 10 a.m., Quality Resort.

Women’s Group of Spouses of Veterans: every other Monday, 6 p.m., St. Patrick’s Episcopal Parish Hall, 225 S. Pagosa Blvd. Contact Charlotte, 731-1025.

Point Man Ministry (veterans): every Thursday, 9 a.m., Crossroads Church, 1044 Park Ave.

Contacts

Durango VA Outpatient Clinic: 247-2214.

Farmington VA Center: (505) 327-9684.

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support to veterans in crisis, as well as their family and friends 24/7, 365 days a year. Call (800) 273-8255, chat online, or text 838255.

This story was posted on February 28, 2013.