Pentagon policy chief: Furloughs are not a sure thing

Defense Department file photo

The Defense Department’s top policy administrator on Thursday assured colleagues in a memo that media reports of coming furloughs in the civilian workforce “included many inaccuracies,” reiterating that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is working closely with the White House and Congress to avoid furloughs.

Kathleen Hicks, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, said in an email obtained by Government Executive that “no decision has been taken to furlough DoD civilians. There are congressional notification requirements prior to any DoD furloughs, and we may see a decision in the next few weeks to notify Congress that the department may need to furlough in the event of sequestration,” she wrote. Such notification is not equivalent to “actual furlough decisions, which would be made subsequently,” she added.

Hicks acknowledged comments made last weekend in a television interview by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter saying furloughs are “more likely than unlikely” in the event of sequestration. But “planning does not assume that these unfortunate events will occur, only that we must be ready,” she said.

Pentagon components were directed in a Jan. 10 memo to include in draft plans the possibility of furloughs for up to 30 calendar days, or 22 discontinuous work days. “This would effectively be the equivalent of 2 days per pay period: 22 discontinuous work days, spread across the 11 pay periods that will possibly be left in the fiscal year at the earliest time that furloughs could begin,” Hicks said.

“If furloughs are implemented, there will likely be an effort to enforce a unified approach across DoD's civilian workforce, including the Services, [Office of the Defense Secretary], Joint Staff and defense agencies. Except for extremely limited exemptions, we believe this would mean that DoD civilians across the military departments and OSD components would be furloughed in a similar manner. Again, we do not have specific guidance or final decisions on this.”

The memo says planners are not anticipating the manner in which "mission criticality" of employees will be used as a factor in determining exemptions from furloughs. “As a planning factor, it is best to assume that virtually all employees funded through regular DoD appropriations would be reviewed for inclusion in a furlough should sequestration occur,” Hicks wrote.

Hicks added that she and top leaders are “intensely aware of the extreme financial hardship that a furlough structure as outlined above would have on our employees, their families, and the long-term health and morale of our workforce. Unfortunately, sequestration will essentially force such a structure: even with near universal furloughs, civilian pay accounts would actually absorb only a small portion of the cuts sequestration would force upon the department during a time of war.”

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