Fort Bliss civilian furloughs start today

EL PASO, Texas — One of the most visible impacts of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration will start today.

Civilian employees at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Fort Bliss and throughout the Department of Defense will begin taking one furlough day a week through Sept. 18.

About 11,000 civilian employees at Fort Bliss and Beaumont will be impacted. Worldwide, about 800,000 civilian Department of Defense employees will face furloughs.

Beginning this week, they will be forced to take one unpaid day off a week for the next 11 weeks.

That amounts to a 20 percent pay cut during the furlough period and a 4 percent pay cut if you factor in the entire year.

Cecilia Bejarano, a civilian nurse at Beaumont, said she supports a large extended family and is also going to school to become a registered nurse.

"It is a huge hardship for me and for a lot of other people," she said. "It's going to have a huge effect on a lot of people."

Col. Michael Heimall, commander of Beaumont, said during a recent news conference that the hospital will do everything in its power to maintain the quality of service its patients are used to receiving, but the furloughs will have an impact.

Patients will see longer wait times at pharmacy windows and for lab and X-ray services, Heimall said. Some patients will also be sent to local El Paso health-care providers for the services that they need, Heimall said.

"Furloughs begin (today)," Beaumont

spokesman Clarence Davis III said. "We expect to continue with all our patient care. There may be some longer waits as we go through the furlough process, but all patients will be taken care of."

Beaumont and the clinics it operates at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range have about 4,000 total employees, about 2,300 of which are civilians. The rest are military and contractors.

Soldiers who work at Beaumont may have to take up some of the slack, Heimall said.

Furloughs will also be spread out over the workweek to minimize the impact on service, he added.

Beaumont has received more than 400 furlough exemptions that will be used to maintain critical operations like emergency services, inpatient wards, behavioral health services and the Warrior Transition Battalion, which cares for wounded, injured and sick soldiers at Fort Bliss, Heimall said.

"I apologize to all of you in advance and would ask for your understanding and empathy for our staff as they bear the brunt of these furloughs," Heimall said.

Heimall said the Beaumont staff "will not allow furloughs to compromise safe, quality health care that we currently provide to our patients.

"We will also not lose sight of the personal toll that this stressful situation is having on our civilian teammates," Heimall added.

Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino echoed that furloughs will be staggered to try to minimize their impact on services and preparedness.

"Our civilian employees are an important part of the scene," Buccino said. "It would be a tough pay cut for any of us to take."

Civilian employees run facilities like fitness centers, swimming pools and the Army Community Service, which offers an array of support to soldiers and their families, Buccino said. Civilians even help plan soldier training and organize sporting events and special events at the installation, he added.

"In every facet of Fort Bliss, there is an element of the civilian workforce," he said.

Probably, the biggest impact most people will see will be at Beaumont and the medical clinics it runs at Fort Bliss and White Sands, Buccino said.

The Fort Bliss Commissary, one of the few commissaries in the military that has been open seven days a week, will be closed on Mondays, starting today, during the furlough period, Buccino said.

The bigger concern is that if sequestration continues into the next fiscal year, "we anticipate there will be a significant impact," Buccino said.

Already, the Army is facing a shortfall of money for training for units that are not going to Afghanistan, he said.

"People may not think that's a big deal if they are not going to Afghanistan," Buccino said. "You have to maintain your combat readiness, and it's something you have to continue to train on.

"If sequestration goes into the next fiscal year and you can't train, you could have a perfect storm where you have an emerging threat and have an unprepared force," he added.

El Paso Times reporter Aaron Martinez contributed to this story.


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