WASHINGTON — Civilian workers at Offutt Air Force Base welcomed news Tuesday that the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of their unpaid furlough days this summer from 14 to 11, but they would like to see that figure continue to drop.
“My hope and prayer is that it will end up being zero,” said Julie Sheehan, president of Offutt's civilian employees union.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to officially announce the reduction in furlough days as early as this afternoon when he speaks to Defense Department civilians in Virginia. Furlough notices should go out in the next few weeks and the unpaid days off begin in early to mid-July. The furloughs are a response to congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts, commonly known as sequestration, and affect most of the department's 800,000 civilian employees.
Each day they can eliminate is a step in the right direction, Sheehan said, but the union feels they could be eliminated altogether if the department focused on cutting wasteful spending. She said just one example would be the cost of flyovers during ceremonial events.
“To watch that waste go on knowing that we are going to have a 20 percent salary cut for 11 days is difficult for all of us,” she said.
The Pentagon's moves also do not go far enough for some lawmakers.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said through spokesman Larry Farnsworth that the chief of staff of the Air Force had assured Congress that the Pentagon would be able to “significantly” reduce furloughs as a result of a spending bill passed earlier this year and designed to provide the defense department with greater flexibility.
While the drop in furlough days is an improvement, Terry still does not feel it is “significant,” Farnsworth said.
“Secretary Hagel should continue to work on this issue,” Farnsworth said. “If we can find the flexibility in the FAA to avoid furloughs, we ought to be able to find ways to avoid them for those individuals vital to our national security.”
Defense officials said that at this point, notification deadlines and other administrative requirements make it difficult for the department to squeeze in more than 12 furlough days by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. They said some senior leaders, including Hagel, wanted to reduce the furloughs as much as possible and had been meeting repeatedly in recent weeks to crunch the numbers.
At first, the defense department pegged the number of furlough days at 22 — one in each of the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year. After the new spending bill was passed at the end of March, the furlough days were cut to 14.
Overall, defense officials say that about 15 percent of the department's civilian workforce will be exempt from the furloughs. Some of those workers include civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, as well as people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. As an example, some employees may be contractors or people working in facilities that pay for operations out of their earnings, such as some recreation jobs or foreign military sales.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing deliberations.
Dropping the number of furlough days below 10 has been a major discussion point because under the rules, civilian workers could lose a sick day and a vacation day if they take 80 hours of unpaid leave. But all the other costs and priorities made that too difficult.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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