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Navy wants full expenses restored for workers away from home

By Ed Friedrich | Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 26, 2016

BREMERTON — The Navy seeks to restore full living expenses for shipyard employees who work away from home for months at a time.

Last year, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard sent 3,055 workers on long-term temporary assignments, primarily maintaining aircraft carriers in San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan. Their average stint was 93 days.

While they were away, the Navy used to cover 100 percent of the cost of food and lodging.

A rule change in November 2014 kept the pay the same for the first 30 days, dropped it to 75 percent for days 31 to 180 and to 55 percent after that. The reduced rate is an incentive for workers to seek extended-stay lodging where they can cook their own meals because it's less expensive. It's expected to save the Department of Defense $22 million a year.

Naval Sea Systems Command, the parent command of PSNS and three other public shipyards, said the changes could wind up costing the Navy more than it saves and wrote last week asking for the changes to be reversed.

"This is jeopardizing the successful execution of off-station availabilities and costing the Navy more than the intended savings," said Vice Adm. William Hilarides, Naval Sea Systems commander.

It's difficult to find housing with food-preparation amenities in San Diego and Yokosuka. Even at 100 percent, the per diem rate isn't enough to cover daily expenses when the worker stays in a hotel and eats out at low-end restaurants. The $64 rate falls short by $5.44 a day, according to the letter.

If workers feel at risk of paying expenses out of their own pocket, they're less likely to volunteer. If not enough employees volunteer, workers with the least seniority are forced to go. This results in the most junior employees being sent to perform highly technical work, states the letter to the DOD's Per Diem, Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee.

Twenty percent of employees assigned to a six-month overhaul of the USS Carl Vinson were forced to travel to San Diego, Hilarides said.

Hilarides requested a permanent return to the previous policy of travel at the 100 percent per diem rate for all naval shipyard civilian workers supporting Navy ship maintenance. It would go into effect no later than Sept. 30. An immediate waiver would suffice until then.

U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, introduced legislation in March to restore the compensation.

"This bill gives our shipyard workers some relief," said Kilmer, whose 6th District contains the shipyard. "It's only right that when we ask workers to leave their families for four to six months to help maintain our naval edge, we compensate them fairly."

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©2016 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)

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