WASHINGTON — Civilian defense employees now are facing 14 unpaid furlough days this summer instead of the 22 previously announced by the Pentagon, thanks to more funding from Congress.
Up to 750,000 defense workers will still lose nearly three weeks’ pay; military officials must still cover about $43 billion in mandatory budget cuts between now and October.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel officially announced the plan Thursday afternoon in a news conference with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Hagel said the funding from Congress "did fix some of our urgent problems," but that it did not cover all the shortfalls.
Dempsey said the "uncomfortable truth" is that by Monday the Defense Department will be halfway through the fiscal year, "and we'll be 80 percent spent in our operating funds. We don't yet have a satisfactory solution to that shortfall, and we're doing everything we can to stretch our readiness out."
The furloughs are expected to save the Defense Department about $2.5 billion.
A senior defense official said employees should start receiving work notices in early May and begin their furloughs in mid-June. The furloughs will be spread out one day a week through September.
Military personnel and civilian employees working in combat zones will be exempt from the furloughs. Some foreign national employees covered by status of forces agreements will also avoid the unpaid leave.
But most other civilian workers will not, the defense official said. Previously, military leaders had said that some employees “required to maintain safety of life or property” could be exempted. But even military firefighters, medical personnel and emergency response staff are expected to take some unpaid leave.
Senior defense officials said the DOD has not yet determined which other employees might be exempted, or if some employees may not be required to take as many furlough days as others.
The change came after lawmakers passed a new appropriations bill funding government operations for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
That new budget bill did not reverse the $43 billion in sequestration defense spending cuts, but it did allow Pentagon planners to shift about $10 billion in funds previously locked in military personnel accounts.
It also erased a planned 0.5 percent pay raise for government workers, blunting the good news about the reduced furlough days. Federal workers haven’t seen a cost of living increase in more than three years.
In a statement, American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. called the furloughs unnecessary and dangerous.
“They claim that the military mission is their number one priority, yet they continue to undermine that mission by forcing employees who actually support the warfighter to stay off the job for two full weeks,” he said. “Meanwhile, the department’s vast shadow workforce of service contractors continues to rack up huge profits at the expense of working class civilian employees.”
Union officials maintain the Pentagon could cover the spending cuts by reducing wasteful contracting.
The defense official said that budget flexibility — and not the outcry from government workers over the lost pay — is what prompted the change.
Military officials have not made any decisions on whether furloughs will resume again next year, since the budget bill only funds federal operations until October 1.