The Pentagon

The Pentagon (Tia Dufour/USMC)

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of civilian defense workers are bracing for cuts in work hours and paychecks starting in late April, thanks to lawmakers who found no way to avoid across-the-board sequestration cuts. Defense experts say that could have a lasting impact on employee morale, recruitment and retention, leading to a brain drain of the Pentagon’s best and brightest.

About 800,000 civilian defense employees face one-day-a-week furloughs and a 20 percent dent to their paychecks, which are set to start next month.

“Many people who are furloughed will update their resumes,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “And they’ll begin looking for a job with more stability and better prospects for the future.”

The people who leave first “tend to be the people with the most marketable skills, because they will have an easier time finding another job,” he said. “DOD may end up losing its most valuable employees in disproportionate numbers.”

This could spur “a cascading effect,” causing remaining highly skilled personnel to be overworked and more likely to leave as well, he said.

“Morale is already very, very low within the halls of the Pentagon right now, and you can understand why it’s low,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Some of your best people – the most qualified and most motivated, with the most opportunities for re-employment -- will perhaps leave, and those are the ones you most want to retain.”

This furlough plan of “provoked attrition” isn’t strategic, Harrison said: “I can’t think of a worse way to reduce the size of the workforce.”

Bensahel said that areas that require the most specialized knowledge are most threatened, such as those in contract oversight, defense procurement, logistics management and maintenance of specialized equipment and weapons systems. With the loss of those experts, military readiness declines.

Yet, many experts agree that civilian defense workers must be shed. The number of DOD civilians has grown by more than 120,000 personnel since 9-11 – in disproportionate numbers to active-duty military, which has grown by 50,000. Civilian defense workers numbers inevitably must go down, Bensahel said, “but this is not the way to do it.”

Harrison said a smarter strategy would involve “targeted layoffs,” but it’s too late for that for this fiscal year.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, said that sequester’s impact on civilian defense department brain drain was impossible to predict.

“I worry more about who in the next generation might join,” he said. “We are sending a message that we view such people as second-class citizens. Not smart.”

About 30 percent of civilian DOD workers are eligible for retirement this year – and cuts could spark early exits, Bensahel said.

Tony Shaffer, a senior fellow at Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington and a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said he fears that many civilian defense employees will retire. They’ll collect their government pensions, while getting a higher-paying job as a defense contractor, “so the government pays (them) twice,” he said.

What’s most lost in the partisan squabbling and the effects of the cuts is the “human factor,” he said.

“Some will be faced with the choice between paying their mortgage or sending their college-age kids to school,” he said, adding that many in DOD’s middle management have been hit with tax hikes on top of the 20 percent pay cut.

“This will be devastating to people on the family level,” he said. “It’s going to bring a lot of misery – and it will be across-the-board, with cuts being made without any regard to if they are cutting bone, muscle or fat.”

Zelda Cozart, union president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 273 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, said that “no one is looking for jobs now.” But after a month or two, that could change.

Nurses, such as herself, have been anticipating the need to look for part-time or weekend work to make up for sequester’s blow to their paychecks. But it’s hard to do when people are uncertain of which day of the week they will be furloughed. For some, finding a new full-time job might be their best option.

“They are saying, ‘It’s going to take a bite out of my rent, and then, it’s going to take a bite out of my food,’” she said. “And God forbid if you have a house payment or car payment. Then you’re trying to figure out how to rob Peter to pay Paul.

“A lot of us are just wondering: What is Congress thinking?” she said. “Why don’t they get a pay cut, too? We put them in these positions of power, and they are not caring about workers and how they are hit.” Twitter: @JoyceTsaiDC

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