WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will sharply cut the number of unpaid furlough days civilians will be forced to take over the next several months from 22 to 14, defense officials said Wednesday, reducing the impact of automatic budget cuts on as many as 700,000 workers.
According to defense officials, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the decision Wednesday, as military service chiefs and defense leaders continued to work through the details, trying to prioritize how they will allocate the more than $10 billion that Congress, in an attempt to take some of the sting out of the across-the-board budget cuts, shifted to operations and maintenance accounts. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter ahead of the public announcement.
While some of the military services initially considered eliminating the furloughs altogether, senior leaders argued that since not all the services could do that, it would be better to treat all civilians across the defense department equally.
The military had been faced with some $43 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in March 1, but lawmakers passed a massive spending bill last week that shifted money around in order to give the Defense Department more flexibility in how it found the savings.
Initially, civilians would have been required to take one day a week off without pay for 22 weeks, through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 — a 20 percent pay cut for more than five months. The congressional action has given officials the leeway to lessen the salary cuts and also spread money around to other key priorities, including training, maintenance and possible ship deployments.
As an example, the Navy had delayed the refueling overhauls of two aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Abraham Lincoln — critical maintenance work that officials said would be among the priorities if additional funding could be identified.
Under the new plan, the unpaid furloughs would not begin until mid-June, with notices going out before that.
Officials have been meeting over the past week to discuss the range of options, including how many of the furlough days could be eliminated.
The Pentagon has declined to say how many of the 800,000 civilian employees would be exempt from the furloughs, although officials have estimated it would be at least 10 percent of the overall civilian workforce. Officials said last week that about 5 percent of Navy and Marine Corps civilians and about 24 percent of Army civilians likely would be exempt from the furloughs, although those numbers may change with the new funding.
Exempt workers include civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, as well as people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. As an example, some employees may be contractors or people working in facilities that pay for operations out of their earnings, such as some recreation jobs or foreign military sales.
Critics have complained that the Pentagon has overstated the effects of the spending cuts and has canceled or sliced into more visible and popular programs. In early announcements the Navy delayed the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and canceled several other ship deployments, while other services slashed training, equipping and maintenance programs, cut commissary hours and warned that 15,000 teachers and staff would be furloughed one day a week at the 194 military schools around the world.
The Pentagon had said they would manage those furloughs so that pupils got the required hours of education and the schools did not lose their accreditation.
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