Furloughed Air National Guard employees in Calif. back on job but uneasy
The Ventura (Calif.) County Star
The last of the 71 furloughed workers at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station returned to work Tuesday, but the California Air National Guard headquarters in Sacramento and civil servants here have lingering concerns.
“Nobody’s 100 percent sure they’ll get paid,” said Julie Morency, Airman and Family Readiness program manager for the 146th Airlift Wing. “Right now, we’re just kind of waiting for the details to come out. I’ve been providing people with financial assistance resources, FOOD Share listings, HUD.”
The Pentagon recalled almost all of its 350,000 furloughed civilian workers Saturday after the U.S. Justice Department determined the Pay Our Military Act — was passed by Congress last week and signed by President Barack Obama — includes broad language that exempts Department of Defense employees from furlough if they provide direct support to the military.
The 71 furloughed workers are supposed to be paid retroactively, but there is concern.
“Nothing’s for sure in the military until it’s in writing,” said Maj. Teresa McDonald, 46, who is director of personnel at the 146th Airlift Wing. “We haven’t seen it in writing.”
California National Guard spokesman Capt. Will Martin, who is based in Sacramento, said he feels confident Congress will do right by its uniformed personnel, but he is concerned the California National Guard has a chronic problem.
“We’re just kind of falling through the cracks on a regular basis,” Martin said. “We can’t keep going through this process of wondering if we’re going to be fully funded. It affects our emergency response readiness.”
The California National Guard is an “odd duck,” explained 146th Airlift Wing Executive Officer and public information officer Chris Lowe. Its members are reservists, working in a variety of civilian jobs all over the state until they are called in to training one weekend a month and an additional 15 days yearly. The 201 guardsmen and women who have civil-service jobs on base during the week at Channel Islands Air National Guard wear uniforms even though they are not working as active-duty military.
The Air National Guard reservists on base get health benefits as federal employees and traditional reservists — those who have civilian jobs off base — can take advantage of a low-cost health plan for Guard reservists.
The California National Guard is a state militia that can be called into federal duty or deployed if needed, and Martin pointed out, they are not “weekend warriors.”
“This is not your father’s and grandfather’s National Guard,” Martin said. “A lot of these guards are combat veterans. Since 9/11, they have deployed 40,000 times (from California).”
Before the “Pay Our Military Act” was interpreted more broadly to protect the civil servants of the National Guard, the commander of the California National Guard, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin wrote a blistering entry on his Facebook page, which he then crafted into a letter to Washington. It read, in part:
“The ‘Pay Our Military Act’ is actually the “Pay Some, But Not All, Of Our Military Act.” DoD’s long-knife lawyers have interpreted Congress’ intent to pay ALL of our Soldiers and Airmen to mean everyone EXCEPT National Guard military technicians and soldiers and airmen serving on Full Time Training/Operational Support Orders. ... Their list demonstrates their clear prejudice against the National Guard and their stubborn resistance to hold on to a Cold War construct of maintaining a costly large standing military when fiscal realities demand that we return to our militia roots.”
Furloughed workers began returning to the local base Monday and Tuesday, but everybody was waiting for payday on Friday to see if they get paid, and if not, when.
Master Sgt. Dave Buttner, 59, plans to retire from his civil service job on the Channel Islands base in December when he turns 60. On Tuesday, he called his mortgage company.
“I informed them I won’t be able to make my mortgage this month,” he said.
Airman 1st Class Marki Patton, 23, and her mother, McDonald, were among those called to assembly on Oct. 1 on base, where they received the news that both would be furloughed. McDonald’s husband also works on base, but was among those who were not furloughed — known as “excepted” employees.
McDonald is commander for the Force Support Squadron when she is on active duty. Patton works in the logistics squadron.
McDonald said she is so proud of her daughter’s sense of responsibility, so it’s frustrating when it isn’t rewarded.
“We tell them, ‘Get an education, get a job, be responsible,’ and she’s doing everything right,” McDonald said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The weekend training planned for reservists on Oct. 5-6 was also canceled. One canceled drill may not seem like a big deal to many, but “it really is a big deal,” McDonald said.
During the monthly weekend training drill — called a unit training assembly — the base swells from 275 people to 1,100 as California Air National Guard members are called to train. They work two days, but are paid for four because the training is so intensive. The pay from the monthly drill can range from a few hundred dollars to about $1,000 based on rank.
“It can be the grocery bill for the month, it could be your rent,” Lowe said. “It DOES hurt, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
“You have a lot of soldiers and airmen depending on that one paycheck,” Martin said. “From a mission standpoint, it directly affects our mission readiness. Each drill is essential to us.”
Jeri Nieberding, 57, of Santa Paula, returned to her job in the logistics squadron Tuesday after being furloughed for five days. She is a single mother of a teenage girl.
“Living here in California, just a week without pay can be devastating,” Nieberding said.
Hours spent on active duty result in “points” toward retirement, Lowe said. Every Air National Guard reservist also gets four points toward retirement benefits for every monthly drill, so the lost October drill means Buttner loses four points toward his retirement pay two months before he retires. It will amount to a couple of thousand dollars a year, which may not seem like much, Buttner said, until you figure that he is shorted that amount for the rest of his life.
Wing commander Col. Paul Hargrove is trying to arrange for an additional training weekend in November to make up for the lost October training, Lowe said, but nothing has been firmed up yet.
Lowe, 44, has two young children at home and a working wife. He was deployed in Afghanistan when he learned he would be facing a sequester when he returned to the U.S. this summer.
“Meanwhile, I’m looking at rockets landing and I see people running,” he said.
When asked about the deadlock in Washington, everybody grimaces.
“Oftentimes, we put our lives on the line,” said McDonald, who served in Iraq. “At those times, we have to put our personal differences aside. It’s frustrating that they can’t put their personal differences aside.”