WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a sweeping furlough plan Tuesday that will hit well over 90 percent of the Defense Department’s 750,000 U.S. civilian employees squarely in the pocketbook this summer.
Employees from every service and agency in the department will be furloughed for up to 11 days, losing up to 2 days of pay in each two-week pay period through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Selected groups of DOD civilians – including Navy shipyard workers, educators, foreign nationals and employees deployed to war zones – will be fully or partially exempt from furloughs, however.
The announcement cut in half the original plan, announced in February, to furlough defense civilians for up to 22 days.
Defense officials say the furloughs will save the department $1.8 billion.
Hagel said DOD leaders have been trying for months to lessen the sting of sequestration – nearly $40 billion in automatic defense budget cuts caused by Congress’ inability to agree to a deficit cutting deal. The department can’t afford to cut training, maintenance and other expenses any further, and furloughs are necessary, he said.
“I tried everything, we did everything we could not to get to this day,” he told DOD employees Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Alexandria, Va. “But that’s it, that’s where we are.”
But Hagel said that he still hopes to find money in the DOD budget to trim the number of furlough days at the end of the fiscal year.
“If we can do better, then we might be in a position to knock that back,” he said. “I can’t promise that. I won’t promise that.”
Furlough notices will be delivered to employees between May 28 and June 5, Hagel wrote in a memo outlining the furlough procedures. Employees will have a week to file an appeal arguing against the decision, and will receive answers by July 5.
Officials, who have described the furlough deliberations as “wrenching,” said financial hardship would not be accepted as a valid reason for appeal. When asked what would be a valid argument, a senior defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “I can’t think of a reason right now.”
Commanders and managers will have leeway to implement furloughs to minimize harm to the DOD’s national security mission, officials said.
Some details have already been planned, however, including the closing of commissaries one day a week.
Although the vast majority of DOD employees are in line for furloughs, some 120,000 will be fully or partially exempt. About 50,000 of those are overseas foreign workers, who defense officials have long said would be exempt based on agreements with foreign governments.
The next largest number of exemptions is in the Department of the Navy, which recently said it had the money to avoid furloughing any of its approximately 200,000 Navy and Marine civilians. In the end, however, Pentagon leaders granted the service only about 44,000 exemptions. Most are shipyard workers, who Navy leaders said furloughing would cause disproportionate damage to readiness.
Nearly 11,000 teachers, aides and other workers in the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DODEA, can be furloughed for a maximum of 5 days, which will be taken at the beginning of the 2013 school year.
Defense officials Tuesday said any furloughing of educators would be handled to minimize disruption to education.
“Our commitment to our servicemen and women who have children in these schools is that they will get an accredited school year,” a defense official speaking Tuesday on the condition of anonymity said.
In the other military services, 7,267 Army civilians are exempt from furlough – primarily medical workers – while 4,291 Air Force civilians are exempt across a variety of missions.
Officials said DOD civilians who work in the National Intelligence Program may also be declared exempt in the future.
In a memo to DOD employees released Tuesday, Hagel acknowledged the pain furloughs would cause, and promised to push Congress to fix the problem.
“I understand that the decision to impose furloughs imposes financial burdens on our valued employees, harms overall morale, and corrodes the long-term ability of the Department to carry out the national defense mission,” he said. “I will continue to urge that our nation's leaders reach an agreement to reduce the deficit and de-trigger sequestration.”
The planning and implementation of furloughs will be carried out based on the schedule below:
• May 28- June 5: Furlough proposal notices will be served to individual employees subject to furloughs.
• June 4- June 12: Individual employee request for exception periods end 7 calendar days from when the proposal was received, unless Component procedures allow for a different reply period.
• June 5 -July 5: Furlough decision letters will be served to individual employees subject to furloughs, depending on when the proposal was received and prior to the first day of furlough.
• July 8: Furlough period begins no earlier than this date.