Pentagon Scales Back Furloughs, Calls for Additional Flexibility

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Most Defense Department civilians can expect 14 furlough days this year instead of the previously planned 22 days, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed Thursday, adding that the department needs additional flexibility to respond to across-the-board budget cuts from sequestration.

Hagel said a spending measure signed by President Obama this week would fix some but not all of Defense’s “urgent problems.” The continuing resolution gave Defense managers greater flexibility by shifting $10 billion into the department’s operation and maintenance accounts.

“We are going to be able to reduce and delay these furloughs but not eliminate furloughs,” Hagel said.

Affected employees had been scheduled to be furloughed approximately one day a week, and the mandatory unpaid leave now won’t begin before June, according to AP.

The Army and Air Force have already announced several classes of employees that are excepted from furloughs, including intelligence workers and public health and safety personnel.

Hagel said Defense must now find a way to cut $41 billion by the end of fiscal 2013, instead of the $46 billion on the hook for before the latest spending bill. He said 14 days of civilian furloughs would save $2.5 billion, down from the $4 billion that 22 furlough days would have saved.

“We still don’t have the flexibility that we had hoped to get,” Hagel said. “Having money in the right accounts is particularly important.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said Defense had gone through approximately 80 percent of the operation and maintenance budget for fiscal 2013 and anticipated that some shortfalls in the military’s readiness may occur. Asked to identify specific areas in which readiness faced harm, Dempsey said the department needed two more weeks to isolate individual instances.

“We’ll be trying to recover lost readiness at the same time we’re trying to reshape the force,” Dempsey said. “We can’t do this without budget certainty.”

In light of the tight budget environment, Hagel said he was directing Dempsey and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to review the department’s strategic interests, prioritize threats and assess “the capabilities required to deal with” both anticipated and unanticipated threats.  

“Biggest issue is dealing with department’s people, and mission, and how these numbers affect all of that,” Hagel said.

Federal employee unions were not buying into the Hagel’s reasoning. Defense is not taking full advantage of the added flexibility and "needs to eliminate furloughs entirely," the American Federation of Government Employees said in a statement Thursday.

"The department's leaders have always had the flexibility to impose budget cuts from sequestration in any way they chose," AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. stated. "Although reducing the number of furlough days from 22 to 14 shows that they're listening, they still haven't gotten the whole message."

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers on Wednesday asked Hagel in a letter to cancel all the department’s planned furloughs. 

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