Thousands of defense workers in Hawaii face 20% less pay

HONOLULU — More than 14,000 civilian defense workers in Hawaii are about to see a 20 percent cut in pay as the budget cuts that Congress never wanted — sequestration — arrive in the form of furloughs.

Notices are going out imposing one furlough day a week starting the week of July 8 to help meet $80 billion in across-the-board government spending cuts this fiscal year, which runs through September.

Sequestration was triggered March 1 when Congress failed to pass legislation to avoid $1.2 trillion in government cuts through 2021 that were agreed to in a debt-ceiling deal.

An untold number of other federal workers in Hawaii already are facing furlough days.

The number affected is unknown because a series of changes to furlough plans since March 1 have meant that some federal agencies — such as the Federal Aviation Administration and Customs and Border Protection — have secured alternate funding or re-programmed internal budgets to avoid furloughs.

Others, such as the federal public defender's office in Honolulu, have borne the full brunt of sequestration furloughs, with the office's 16 employees already subject to 10 unpaid days off since March, and with the expectation of 10 more through September.

State Finance Director Kalbert Young says the process has been about as clear as mud.

The White House early on projected that as many as 20,000 Department of Defense civilian workers alone in Hawaii might be affected by furloughs, leaving a $134 million dent in the state's economy.

Asked if the state has received any updates from the federal government on how sequestration impacts are shaping up, Young said, "No, we haven't."

The state has asked for the statistical demographics of the impacts, he said.

"And in fact we actually haven't gotten any formal communications from the feds indicating that they have any statistics on it, either," he said.

The offices of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz were also hard-pressed to come up with an updated snapshot of Hawaii's furlough picture late last week.

Young said the level of complexity with the furloughs has made getting a clearer picture difficult.

"The example that I use from what I've actually seen is that each federal department or agency is accommodating their furlough and sequestration reductions differently, and to the point where each individual office within the department or agency is handling their portion of the reductions different from their larger department even," Young said.

The furloughs continue to evolve, making them a moving target.

The Pentagon announced in May that it would furlough up to 680,000 civilian defense workers for 11 days starting this summer.

The number of furlough days dropped from 22 to 14 to 11 over a period of several months.

The Pentagon also decided to exempt shipyard workers from the furloughs, a decision that meant that 4,447 workers at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, the state's largest industrial employer, would keep their regular work weeks and regular paychecks.

Other exemptions were granted for civilians deployed to a combat zone, for those responsible for the safety of life or property (mostly police and firefighters), civilians paid through nonappropriated funds, foreign nationals, child-care workers, and others.

According to the Navy, of 10,421 appropriated-fund employees in Hawaii, 5,370 are subject to furlough and 5,051 are exempt.

For the Air Force in Hawaii, of 1,819 civilians, 141 are exempt and 1,678 are subject to furlough, an Air Force report reveals.

Similar breakdowns are not available for the Army and Marine Corps, but the Army said about 7,000 civilian employees in Hawaii could be affected by furloughs, while Marine Corps Base Hawaii said it has issued 504 furlough notices.

Keith Miller, an operations supervisor at Pacific Air Forces headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, who is facing the upcoming furloughs, said a 20 percent pay cut is definitely a hit.

Miller, 38, who is married and has three children ages 7, 6 and 3, said his wife, who works part time, will go back to work full time.

"We don't have any insight into how long sequestration will last. I certainly don't think it's going to end this fiscal year," he said.

Robert Lillis, president of Machinists Union Local 1998, said the furlough of about 1,300 workers represented by the union at Tripler Army Medical Center is particularly hard to swallow.

"I'm so glad they are taking care of the shipyard (with no furloughs). Good thing. But submarines versus human beings? Ouch," Lillis said. "They've got to fund the hospital, too. They should not be furloughing anyone at the hospital."

Additionally, Lillis said about 118 BAE Systems Hawaii contract workers at Schofield Barracks are being laid off.

The Navy, meanwhile, said it plans to eliminate 42 civilian job positions in Hawaii over the next seven months as a result of the budget crunch.

Young, the state finance director, said if there's any good news shaking out of the early implementation of sequestration, it's that the impacts aren't as dire as predicted.

"I would say that I can see people getting more optimistic about how it's going to get implemented — not that the cuts will be completely eliminated, but it may not be as deeply felt as originally thought," he said.

State officials in March identified as much as $45 million in direct federal grants to Hawaii that were perceived to be at risk.

At the same time, Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced plans to establish a "Sequestration Impact Response Team" and called for a contingency fund with $25 million deposited in it in each of the next two fiscal years to deal with the effects of sequestration.

The response team has yet to be created. The Legislature, meanwhile, appropriated $15 million for fiscal 2014, an official said.

However, there hasn't been a reduction in the $45 million in grants to education, health and human services programs, Young said.

"So departments (that receive the funding) are kind of feeling like, wow, maybe they are good to go. Maybe these (federal) agencies are accommodating the reductions in whatever they do internally," Young said.

Some Republicans accused President Barack Obama of exaggerating the effects of sequestration. Obama responded in late April by noting short-term fixes that could have ramifications down the road, including congressional action to halt Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller furloughs by allowing the transfer of $253 million to the FAA's operations account from other accounts.

"And the fact that Congress responded to the short-term problem of flight delays by giving us the option of shifting money that's designed to repair and improve airports over the long term to fix these short-term problems — well, that's not a solution," Obama said. "And essentially what we've done is we've said, in order to avoid delays this summer, we're going to ensure delays for the next two or three decades."

In Honolulu, the federal public defender's office expects harder times for fiscal 2014.

The office is now closed every other Friday, save for one assistant public defender who takes a furlough day on another day of the week.

"Twenty days of furloughs — and next year is going to be worse," said Peter Wolff, the federal public defender for the District of Hawaii.

The office started fiscal 2013 with an approved $3 million budget but is ending it with an 8 percent reduction, or $2.77 million, because of a former continuing resolution budget shortfall and sequestration.

Wolff's office expects to start 2014 with $2.18 million — $595,000 less than 2013 with its 20 furlough days.

A reduction of staff by attrition and/or layoff "must be considered," Wolff said.

Another area where the office is feeling the crunch is in its ability to hire experts to investigate and testify in cases.

"Whereas before, to be effective, we would err on the side of hiring an expert to look into an issue," said assistant federal public defender Alexander Silvert, "now, we are erring on the side of, do we really need to hire this expert?"

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