Europe bases suspending work as shutdown begins
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 1, 2013
This report has been corrected.
NAPLES, Italy — Department of Defense employees across the globe began suspending their work on Tuesday as the implications of a government shutdown for civilians and servicemembers became increasingly visible.
Supervisors sent some civilian employees home and requested exemptions for others, and commanders — some already working with staffs reduced by a civilian hiring freeze — weighed whether to suspend or exempt specific positions.
In a morning town hall at the Navy base here, home to the service’s command for Europe and Africa, base commander Capt. Scott Gray asked employees to remain optimistic.
“Don’t lose heart,” he said. “Because many of these things haven’t lasted long in the past.”
The effect on military families also became apparent Tuesday as troops prepared to shoulder tasks left by their civilian coworkers and on-base services closed due to furloughed positions. In Vilseck, Germany, home to the Army’s recently deployed 2nd Cavalry Regiment, military spouses were told they could not send packages to their soldiers in Afghanistan due to postal service closures in Germany.
The government shutdown became official Tuesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, after Congress’ failure to agree on a funding bill. However, while some 800,000 federal workers are expected to be furloughed without pay, members of the military will be paid under separate legislation.
Upward of 50 percent of civilian workers at installations and commands across Europe were expected to be sent home until Congress passes a funding resolution, affecting services from network maintenance to youth sports.
Furloughed workers were told to spend four hours of paid time in an “orderly shutdown” after receiving furlough notice. They were expected to finish outstanding work, hand files over to coworkers exempted from the furloughs and post automatic “out-of-office” replies on email and phone accounts.
Workers were told not to check government cell phones or email during the shutdown but that they would still be allowed on base to use commissaries and exchanges.
According to government regulations, furloughed civilians will not receive pay and can only be compensated for back pay by an act of Congress.
More than 1,400 civilians working for U.S. Air Forces in Europe-U.S. Air Forces Africa — more than 80 percent of the command’s appropriated-fund civilian workforce — were to be furloughed, according to USAFE officials.
“This will certainly put undue stress on all of our Airmen as we adjust to this significant loss of manpower and professional expertise,” Gen. Frank Gorenc, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander said in a message posted on the command’s Facebook page Tuesday.
U.S. Army Europe was still reviewing the number of employees furloughed as of Tuesday morning, partly because guidance changed a few times, the command reported.
U.S. European Command said it was furloughing 98 percent of its 360 civilians.
Commands had some discretion over which positions they considered “mission-essential,” although many were relying on instruction from superiors in Washington.
The ripple effects of furloughs were expected to be felt by all. Even essential services that will continue across military bases — schools, hospitals and childcare, among others — were to be curtailed.
Elective surgery and procedures in DOD medical and dental facilities could be suspended, according to the USAFE website. Schools may likewise suspend some youth activities, and childcare facilities could limit or prioritize services, the website said.
Services reported that temporary duty travel orders were suspended outside of emergency need. Permanent-change-of station moves already under way would continue, but new ones would only be initiated in rare cases, USAFE-AFAFRICA reported.
A host of services aimed at military families, including library services, youth classes and deliveries of temporary furniture were among other casualties in a growing list of announcements released by commands through email, Facebook and other social media.
Post offices in Brussels and Italy were operating as usual, according to a spokesman for U.S. European Command. In Germany and Turkey, U.S. Army post offices used to send mail were closed. However, community mail rooms, where mail is picked up, continued to operate as usual, the spokesman said.
In Kaiserslautern, home to the largest U.S. military population overseas, the Air Force shuttered library services on Vogelweh, while Ramstein Air Base maintained reduced hours Monday to Friday.
The Air Force also announced the cancelation of all youth instructional classes at the two bases — including martial arts, music, dance and gymnastics — according to an email sent to parents Tuesday.
The Army-run libraries at Kaiserslautern-area bases, meanwhile, were running normally, and Army youth programs were to continue as scheduled, said Mark Heeter, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Garrison-Rheinland-Pfalz, shortly before leaving his office Tuesday on furlough.
Supervisors and commanders at military bases across Europe appeared to struggle with which positions to furlough and which to keep. Gray said he granted an exemption to one of the base’s two Information Technology positions that was to be furloughed, citing need for the office across the installation.
The Inspector General’s office in Naples, which investigates non-criminal complaints on Navy bases across Europe, furloughed three of its four civilians, leaving a single investigator, according to region spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Robert Johnson.
“The investigator is going to have the double duty of answering the hotline and then going out and investigating if necessary,” Johnson said.
Servicemembers are guaranteed continued pay through a late bill passed by Congress and signed by the president on Monday. Although some overseas troops have expressed concern about allowances for living expenses and rent, officials say both will continue to be paid on time.
Workers who were furloughed said, although they expected it, it was disconcerting.
In Vicenza, Italy, Bryan Coleman, computer network manager for the 509th Signal Battalion, who was furloughed over the summer, said this second furlough was not unexpected.
“We all smelled it coming, we felt it coming and we all hoped it wouldn’t come,” said Coleman, 56. “I’m just angry that our politicians have made us the football.”
Jennifer Sherbert, an accounting technician for the Army’s regional chaplain office in Sembach, Germany, said she was worried about when she would get paid. “You don’t know what to think or you don’t know what to believe as far as what the outcome is going to be,” she said. “It’s just like that state of confusion.”
There was also confusion at some offices as to whether they were closing. In the early afternoon, recreation aid Debbie Camarce was taping signs listing reduced opening times on the front doors of the Air Force community center on Vogelweh, just hours after officials had announced, and informed parents, that the center would be closed and there would be no after-school activities.
The shutdown follows a fiscal year marked by defense budget caps known as sequestration, which will continue into the new fiscal year unless repealed by Congress.
The White House on Tuesday released a video in which President Barack Obama directly addressed troops and DOD civilians. He promised to work toward an end to both the government shutdown and the second round of sequestration cuts. Those cuts amount to $52 billion in the new fiscal year, a sum that service chiefs have repeatedly warned could devastate military readiness if left in place.
“We need a responsible approach that deals with our fiscal challenges and keeps our military and our economy strong,” Obama said in the video.
Gray, in Naples, said he felt a bit sheepish going before civilian employees on Tuesday morning when he knew his pay was guaranteed. He encouraged directors across the base to keep tabs on their furloughed employees and ask about their financial situations.
“My biggest concern really is the longer this goes on, the more impact it will have on my workers,” Gray said after the meeting.
Such crises have become familiar ground for Gray and other military commanders in the past year. A civilian hiring freeze in January was followed by a summer of civilian furloughs.
“We’ve already gone through a hell of a lot last year … The hits just keep coming,” he told the town hall.
Stars and Stripes reporters Jennifer Svan, Matt Millham and Nancy Montgomery contributed to this report.
This report incorrectly stated U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa was unable to provide furlough numbers due to evolving guidance. The command never responded to a request for numbers.