DOD takes first steps toward furloughs

A notice issued Feb. 20 formally starts the clock on implementing measures to save money that will be necessary under sequestration. Among them: Hundreds of thousands of DOD employees could be forced to take unpaid time off for at least the remainder of the fiscal year.

furloughed worker

DOD civilian employees face furloughs equal to a 20-percent pay cut if sequestration takes hold. (Stock image)

Pentagon officials on Feb. 20 notified Congress of plans to furlough nearly 800,000 civilian Defense Department employees as part of planning for $46 billion in potential cuts that could come this year under sequestration.

The notice serves to start the clock on a 45-day countdown until the furloughs can begin, according to DOD Comptroller Robert Hale.

"The bottom line is furloughs would not actually start for DOD employees until late April," Hale said at a Pentagon press conference. "And we certainly hope even if sequestration is triggered on March 1, in the interim Congress will work to de-trigger sequestration or…take some short-term action while dealing with the broader issues."

The next move will come in March, when a 30-day notification would be sent to all employees who may face furlough. In April, a decision will be sent to employees whose managers have determined they will be furloughed; they are given one week to appeal the decision.

The furloughs equal a 20-percent pay cut for civilian DOD personnel.

"We are doing everything possible to limit the worst effects on DOD personnel – but I regret that our flexibility within the law is extremely limited," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in a Feb. 20 memo to civilian employees.

Some personnel are exempt from the measures, including civilians employed in the combat theater, some providing security or protection of life or property, and – an aspect Hale called "embarrassing" – Senate-confirmed political appointees.

Panetta, Hale and others warned that impact on military readiness will be significant under sequestration. Hale described operations and maintenance funding as "seriously short" and said there will be "serious adverse effects" on readiness.

Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of personnel and readiness, warned of the negative second- and third-order consequences, and pointed out that some critical DOD programs, such as those dealing with education, medicine, sexual assault and suicide, will be hard-hit.

"The effects of sequestration and the continuing resolution on our military personnel will be devastating, but on our civilians it will be catastrophic," she said. "[It] will be felt in the local commands and will be felt in the local communities, all over the United States and clearly all over the globe. This is not a Beltway phenomenon."

But so far, officials are still holding off on many of the larger-scale, DOD-wide decisions, Hale said. "Right now the guidance we have from [Office of Management and Budget] is not to plan for these large cuts that could occur under the Budget Control Act," he said, adding that doing so would require looking at a new defense strategy and a smaller military, which would include a smaller civilian workforce and "a variety of other changes."

Hale, who expressed some bewilderment at the situation, did try to maintain at least some hope that the unprecedented state of affairs still could be resolved.

"Today [DOD] faces some enormous budgetary uncertainty, really unparalleled in my experience," he said. "The change I want Congress to make is to pass a balanced budget deficit reduction package that the President can sign and de-trigger sequestration. And to pass appropriates bills. That's what would solve our problem."

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