Robins quiet on ‘Furlough Friday’

wcrenshaw@macon.comAugust 2, 2013 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- At about 9:30 a.m. Friday, Master Sgt. Robert Lipham leads the way up the stairs of the pedestrian bridge that connects to the flight line area of Robins Air Force Base.

At the top is one of the best views of the operations of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex. On a normal day, the vast expanse of pavement and hangars would be swirling with activity. Trucks, golf carts and people would be moving in all directions. Power tools would be whirring. Aircraft engines would be running.

But on this day nearly all of the civilian employees who create that scene are in their fourth week of what has become known as “Furlough Friday.” So the flight line now is mostly empty, silent and still, with just an occasional vehicle.

About the only thing missing from the scene is a tumbleweed.

There is one sound. Somewhere in the distance, someone is banging on something metal.

“On a normal day, you wouldn’t hear that,” said Lipham, the only military member of the public affairs office.

What he means is that ordinarily there would be so much noise that a little banging on metal would be drowned out.

There are about 15,000 federal civilian employees at Robins, and nearly all are impacted by the furlough. About half of those work in the maintenance area, which is basically shut down on Friday. The huge parking lots around the flight line, normally packed on a weekday, are mostly empty.

Military personnel are exempted from the furlough. Col. Roger Johnson, deputy commander of maintenance, said about 120 military personnel work in the complex. Many of those are in an all-military squadron that specializes in battle-damage repair to aircraft in the field. Most of the others are in supervisory roles for civilian employees, so it’s difficult for them to get anything done on Fridays.

“It’s real tough, especially in this organization with so many civilians,” Johnson said. “I try to catch up on emails, but then you realize that to answer one you need to talk to this person who is on furlough.”

In other areas of the base, the impact of the furlough isn’t quite as visible. The 5th Combat Communications Group, for example, is almost all military, so it’s just another day at the office for them.

Also, many civilians who work at the base are funded through separate sources, so they aren’t impacted by the furloughs. Those include the Foreign Military Sales office and those who work in the Exchange, a shopping area for military members and military retirees. The Exchange is funded through its own sales revenue. The golf course and bowling alley are also self-funded and therefore unaffected.

One of the few exceptions for regular civilian employees is the child care center. Those employees were exempted because the military members need the service, Lipham said.

The Base Restaurant, which primarily serves the maintenance area, is closed on Fridays during the furloughs. On the other side of the base, the six restaurants in the Exchange have remained open and are doing well.

“Our business hasn’t dropped any,” said Keith Taylor, the food court manager. “We have a pretty good customer base.”

While furloughed civilians can’t go to their workplaces on Friday, they can come on base, and many have still been coming to dine at the Exchange, Taylor said.

Other impacts of furloughs include the publication of the base newspaper, The Robins Rev-Up, on Thursday rather than Friday. Also, ordinarily workers would get overtime by working through the weekend, but overtime has been banned during the furlough period, so the weekends are shut down also.

The furloughs are the result of automatic spending cuts mandated by Congress to control the federal budget deficit, referred to as sequestration.

There is an effort to try to stop the furloughs, but nothing has been decided yet. As it stands, the furloughs are set to continue through September, and potentially into next year if Congress doesn’t reach an alternative agreement for budget cuts.

Friday marked the first paycheck in which employees saw the full impact of the furlough loss. They will lose 20 percent of their pay during the furlough period.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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