Fort Lee copes with furloughs

For thousands of federal employees in Virginia, sequestration has become more than a media buzzword in recent days: It’s now an economic reality.

Among those facing furloughs and pay cuts this summer are almost 5,000 civilian employees and contractors of the Department of Defense providing goods and services at Fort Lee, where the impact of the arbitrary cuts across federal programs already can be felt.

Civilian workers at the garrison face 20 percent pay cuts because of furloughs of one day a week over the next three months. As a result, the base must cope with reductions in services to enlisted personnel, including significant changes to access gate and customer service operations and to some community activities.

Among the many Fort Lee families coping with the furloughs are civilian employee Tkethia Houston, her husband, David, and their three children. Over the next 11 weeks, Tkethia Houston must take a $600 pay cut every month.

As an administrative support assistant for the Army’s substance abuse program, Tkethia Houston assists soldiers with drug addiction issues. David Houston is an enlisted member of the Army, serving as a staff sergeant.

The couple owns a home in Chester, about 20 minutes from Fort Lee. But two years ago, David Houston received orders for deployment to Fort Campbell in Kentucky, forcing him to commute and the family to keep two households.

“The cuts are especially hard on us because we pay mortgage and rent. This wasn’t easy before the furloughs,” Tkethia Houston said.

She followed the budget battle in Congress in February and says she wasn’t really concerned at first. “I thought they would come up with a budget,” she said.

But when the negotiations stalled and sequestration kicked in, the Houstons began to brace for the financial impact on their family.

“I paid off one of our two cars in February. In May, we paid off the second car,” Tkethia Houston said. “We didn’t talk much about the furloughs, but as it’s gotten closer, we started talking about cutting back and better budgeting.”

She got her final notice three weeks ago. “My initial reaction was, wow, this is really happening,” she said.

“The impact on our family is like a single parent living from paycheck to paycheck. It’s not easy, even though my husband has his full income,” Houston said.

In summer, with their three kids out of school, the Houstons are used to taking vacations to Disney World, going to a beach, or visiting family in Ohio and North Carolina.

This summer, it will be different.

“A lot of things that we do would be local, maybe a few day trips to the beach,” Houston said. “We’ll be eating out less, and instead of going to the movies in the evenings, we’ll do matinees, or we’ll look for specials.”

Col. Rodney D. Edge, garrison commander at Fort Lee, said he hopes for a timely resolution of the situation.

“We care greatly about the people being affected by this furlough and are doing our best to assist wherever we can,” Edge said.

Stephen J. Baker, deputy director of public affairs at Fort Lee, said the impact of the cuts goes beyond civilian employees, who provide services to enlisted personnel.

“These cuts mean less time devoted to soldiers dealing with certain issues, like addiction, behavioral health or problems of financial nature,” Baker said.

“It’s that much less direct support time, which affects all service members. You can’t reduce your working hours by 20 percent and provide the same quality of service. There is an impact,” he said.

In total, about 85 percent of the Department of Defense’s nearly 900,000 civilians around the world will be furloughed one day each week over the next three months as a result of the across-the-board cuts.

The automatic cuts kicked in March 1 and are the result of Congress’ failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade.

The Pentagon must reduce its 2013 budget by about $41 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. In addition to furloughs of civilian employees, the armed forces are scaling back essential training and maintenance programs to deal with the lower spending levels.

Separately, the military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.

Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., said Friday that civilian furloughs are “horrible in terms of people’s quality of life” and have resulted in additional uncertainty for many families.

“These families, including 70,000 in Virginia, are being punished by a tiny handful of senators who are blocking a budget conference where we could come to an agreement and replace the sequester altogether,” Kaine said.

“These members of the ‘no compromise’ caucus are blocking the nation from getting work done, and civilian workers are paying the price. It’s unacceptable, and I continue to work with my colleagues to fix this issue,” he said.

Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., in a Senate floor speech on Thursday, said the thousands of Virginians who work for the federal government are bearing a disproportionate impact of the furloughs.

“If you think a net 20 percent reduction in salary has no impact, you would be mistaken,” Warner said. “I hear from federal workers and their families every day — real people, facing real consequences.”

Equally frustrating, Houston said, are the cuts in services that civilian employees provide to soldiers on base.

“Soldier support is our mission,” she said. “We’re not going to be here when they need us.”

In the first week under furloughs, the reduction of gate hours also has created a traffic problem on and off base. Operating hours were reduced at most access gates, and the Shop Road Gate will be fully closed at least until September.

“Around lunchtime especially, traffic backs up on Route 36 because only one gate stays open during these hours. Some employees reported about an hour wait for them to get back on post after lunch,” Baker said.

On regular, non-furlough days, all work schedules — with the exception of emergency services for health, life and safety — will be strictly limited to eight hours.

“We are not allowed to take calls or even check our emails after work,” said Baker, who also is affected by the furloughs.

“The civilians on post do the job because they love the military and support the troops, and for all of us it’s very hard to not be here and do our jobs,” Baker said.

And the summer furloughs may not be an exception. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned lawmakers of “severe and unacceptable effects” on the military if Congress doesn’t end the automatic spending cuts projected to slice $52 billion from the defense budget for 2014.

mschmidt@timesdispatch.com / (804) 649-6537

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