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Furlough notices going in the mail

For 40,000 Defense Department civilians in Hampton Roads, the prospect of a serious cut in take-home pay is about to get much closer to reality.

Starting Thursday, the Pentagon will begin mailing furlough notices to its civilian workforce across the country, some 800,000 people in all. Assuming nothing changes, most will begin working four-day weeks starting in late April. That will continue through September, taking a 20-percent bite out of paychecks through spring and summer. The furloughs will total 22 days.

Of all the states, Virginia has the highest number of Defense Department civilians subject to furlough, about 88,000, the Pentagon says. The 40,000 estimate for the region comes from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

"We're ground zero here in Hampton Roads," said Sen. Mark R. Warner during a stop last week at the Hampton VA Medical Center.

The Senate this week is considering legislation to fund the federal government through Sept. 30. It would give the Defense Department more flexibility in implementing spending cuts and would fund aircraft carrier work at Newport News Shipbuilding. But there was no indication it would change the furloughs.

Apart from numbers and legislation is the cost of families rearranging household budgets and military installations scrambling to maintain missions while employees work fewer hours.

Measuring the fallout

Pentagon civilians perform so many tasks that the furloughs will touch on every aspect of life at military installations. In some cases, details have yet to be worked out. Other areas are more certain.

Take health care.

Langley Air Force Base in Hampton operates a hospital, and the percentage of employees subject to furlough is around 11-12 percent. Of that, Langley requested exceptions for emergency room staff and those who support 24-hour in-patient care.

"So at the end of the day, about 6 percent of the total workforce at USAF Hospital Langley could face a furlough," according an e-mailed statement from the base. "We can make up that shortfall for the rest of the fiscal year with small, but not insignificant impacts to outpatient care and administrative functions."

Child care services on base is another concern.

"While specific plans haven't been finalized, many of our children and youth services are run by civilians, so there will be a definite impact," a statement said. "There is a serious effort to design a plan that will ensure a high level of care, but in reality, a furlough is going to be hard on a lot of families, both active-duty and civilians."

Few exceptions, no OT

Those requested exceptions for Langley hospital employees will not be the norm across the country. Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, the few exceptions will be granted due to safety and health concerns. (DoD civilians deployed to Afghanistan will not be furloughed, for example.)

Besides health care workers, it is possible that firefighters or security officers could be spared if their offices are understaffed to begin with.

But "if a firehouse is at full strength, we expect them to be furloughed," she said.

At Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, the largest civilian employer is Navy Munitions Command. They handle the loading and unloading of ordnance in serving the various Navy ships that stop at the station.

Mark Piggott, station spokesman, said work flow will be dictated by ship deployment schedules, so it's impossible to speculate further on how the base would be affected. However, no overtime or comp time is authorized as of now, and that could prompt schedule changes.

Normally, workers will push straight through to complete a job for a ship. That may have to be adjusted due to time restrictions.

Juggling schedule will affect other operations as well. Last week, Air Force Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones told Congress that notifying next-of-kin in the event of a casualty will require some changes. Many civilians serve as Casualty Assistance Representatives, with trained military personnel to serve as backups. If a notification is required on a civilian's furlough day, the back-up can fill that role.

"However," Jones said, "furlough days may over time impact the primary services being delivered by backups, and the length of time it takes to complete follow-on casualty assistance visits and paperwork for next of kin may be extended."

Household by household

If the furloughs continue through the summer, the impact will ripple throughout the economy.

Defense spending accounted for 46 percent of the region's economic output in 2012, and that share had been expected to increase this year, according to the planning district commission.

"Most folks are going to reduce their spending, and reduce it in areas that will cause households the least disruption and pain," said Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance. "They'll put off going to movies and eating out, drive less, walk more, pack more lunches, turn the thermostat down.

"You'll find as many different approaches to that as stars in the sky."
 

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