The Pentagon says its easing the impact of automatic budget cuts on as many as 800,000 civilian employees, sharply reducing the number of unpaid furlough days they will have to take in coming months.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday a new spending law lets the military services cut furlough days from 22 to 14. About 15,000 civilian employees at Robins Air Force Base will be affected.
The spending bill was signed earlier this week by President Barack Obama. It shifts $10 billion to operations and maintenance to give the Pentagon more flexibility to deal with billions of dollars in automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in March 1.
Hagel says the move will reduce the amount of cuts the military has to make in the 2014 budget year.
Robins Air Force Base officials anticipate furlough days to begin in mid-June and run through the end of September, according to base spokesman David Donato. Employees will be given 30 days notice before furloughs begin.
It is great news that the Department of Defense is trimming the furloughs by roughly 33 percent, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, president and chief executive officer of the 21st Century Partnership, said in an e-mailed statement. However, the impact will still be significant to our DoD civilian workforce, and it will still be important that as a community we continue to prepare and stand ready to help our impacted federal workers.
The 21st Century Partnership is a community group that works to support Robins.
The military had been faced with some $46 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts, but the massive spending bill last week shifted money around 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.
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 work force. 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.
Telegraph Houston editor Jennifer Burk contributed to this report.