Bipartisan Group Says Pentagon’s Across-the-Board Furlough Policy Might Go Too Far

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers wants to know why certain civilian employees at the Defense Department are subject to furloughs.

The employees work at Defense entities financed through working capital funds rather than direct congressional appropriations. Thirty-one members of Congress sent a June 21 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking whether the Pentagon considers such workers to be “indirectly funded” government employees of Defense as defined under law (Title 10, Section 129). “If so, we further request an explanation of the legal justification the department is using to impose furloughs on these civilian workers, despite the explicit protections afforded them under this statute.”

The lawmakers also questioned how furloughing working capital fund employees would help the department make up for fiscal 2013 funding shortfalls because of sequestration, since their units do not operate on direct funding from Congress.

Defense has five working capital funds, which are revolving funds financing operations that the department runs like a business, such as weapons production and depot maintenance. Sales revenue from customers sustains the revolving funds rather than direct congressional appropriations. The department’s WCFs are designed to break even over time, not make a profit.

“We are concerned that, in addition to the loss of pay these civilian employees now face and the subsequent impact this will have on our local communities, moving forward with these furloughs will reduce the ability of our civilian workforce to complete workload which is already funded,” the lawmakers wrote. Defense will furlough roughly 650,000 civilian employees -- most of its workforce -- for 11 days from July 8 to Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Hagel reduced the number of furlough days from 22 to 14, and then 11 in May.

WCF employees work all over the country, including at the Army Arsenal in Watervliet, N.Y., the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas, and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. “I am glad our elected officials are questioning whether furloughing WCF employees does anything to meet the demands of the Budget Control Act [sequestration], and may harm the readiness of our military forces,” said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, which represents some working capital fund employees.

Defense in May sent a memo to managers listing the types of jobs exempt from furloughs. Exempt employees include those deployed or temporarily assigned to a combat zone, Navy shipyard workers, as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Defense Civil Works program employees, along with any other employees “who are not paid directly by accounts included in the Department of Defense-Military budget are excepted from furlough.” The memo expressly said that other than Navy shipyard workers, all other depot employees “whether mission-funded or working capital fund employees, will be subject to furlough.”

Defense did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the furlough status of working capital fund employees, or the letter from lawmakers.

Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, one of the 31 lawmakers, asked Hagel in April why 180,000 Defense civilians paid through working capital funds were being furloughed at the same rate as civilians paid through money appropriated by Congress. Hagel noted the many furlough exceptions -- including health and safety positions -- but said Defense was implementing cuts across-the-board, keeping fairness in mind.

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