(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the furlough-appeals process.)
The vast majority of the Defense Department’s civilian workforce will begin to receive notifications as soon as next week that they should expect to be furloughed for 22 days this year. Actual furloughs will begin before the end of April, and there will be virtually no leeway as to whether an employee is furloughed or for how long.
Now that sequestration has taken effect, Pentagon officials predict civilian furloughs will actually begin within DoD on April 26.
The date is a consequence of various legal notification timeframes the department has to meet. It is the only federal agency that must notify Congress of its intent to furlough workers: that particular 45-day clock began ticking when the Pentagon sent a letter to Capitol Hill Feb. 20.
Next Friday, DoD will start to notify employees that they’re targeted for furlough. Each worker will have one week to challenge the proposed furlough with their agency, but 30 days after an employee is told of the proposal, the actual furlough can begin. At that point, he or she will have 30 more days to initiate an appeal process through the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“We’ve never done this before, we still hope we won’t have to, and it’s not quite clear what that process will be,” said Robert Hale, the DoD comptroller. “But the right to appeal is there.”
Few spared from 20 percent pay cut
Over the past few weeks, the military services and components have been compiling lists of employees that they believe should be exempt from furlough. The Pentagon now has those lists in-hand and expects to render final decisions on exceptions by this Friday. But Hale told a town hall audience of Pentagon employees that very few civilian workers will be spared from the effective 20 percent pay cut. The only exceptions it intends to grant are for employees who are actively serving in war zones or who must be on the job on a given day in order to protect life or property.
And even if a hypothetical DoD agency manages to find enough savings in other spending areas to offset its share of sequestration, it still won’t be able to exempt its employees from the across-the-board furlough.
“Our judgment is that’s not a good idea. There are some Defense agencies that are made up mostly of contractor employees that could have avoided furloughs, but we made a judgment that consistency and fairness is the right approach,” Hale said. “What we’ll do instead is try to level the money. To the extent that we have transfer authority to do it, we’ll move money from the services that are a little better-off to those that are less well-off.”
While sequestration purports to cut all DoD programs evenly, the actual effects of the cuts across the military services and agencies are extremely uneven. The department’s O&M accounts will take the biggest hit because of the speed and manner in which funds are drawn down from those funding lines.
O&M accounts taking huge hit
Also, since DoD still is operating at last year’s funding levels, it has much less O&M money than it requested in the first place for 2013. While many weapons systems it no longer wants or have already been completed are flush with dollars, those funds can’t be reallocated to other priorities.
As a result, DoD’s O&M accounts overall will see a 40 percent shortfall in money available to pay for 2013 needs such as military training, civilian salaries, building maintenance and many other activities by the end of the year. In the Army’s O&M accounts, the projected shortfall is nearly 80 percent, the Pentagon estimated.
Hale said that’s why individual DoD organizations won’t be offered an escape hatch from furloughs, no matter how many dollars they scrounge from other day-to-day expenses.
“We’re going to have to do some cross-leveling of funds. We’re going to have to help agencies who couldn’t get by even with the full 22 days of furloughs, which is the maximum amount we’re allowed to do under the law,” he said.
The cross-leveling strategy assumes Congress will provide the Pentagon with the authority to move money between its accounts by the end of 2013, which is by no means a sure thing. The same general philosophy applies even to narrow corners of the workforce who aren’t technically federal employees, including local government, tribal and academic institutional employees who work within DoD under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.
“In the Office of the Secretary of Defense, we have several dozen of those, and our current intent is to work with the nonprofits, the academic organizations and others to renegotiate those agreements down to the level at which the civilian employees are taking a cut,” said Susan Yarwood, the director of human resources for DoD’s Washington Headquarters Services. “It’s another way to save some money.”
The same goes for outside advisors who work for the Pentagon, Yarwood said.
“If they’re paid consultants, we’re asking organizations not to call them in for a certain number of days so that their time will also be reduced,” she said.
House bill includes reprogramming authority
DoD’s crackdown on O&M dollars, which already has forced the firing of thousands of temporary and term employees and a huge cutback on out-of-town travel for training events, might be alleviated under actions Congress is now considering.
The House passed a bill last week that would provide Defense with appropriations for the remainder of the year while leaving most of the rest of the federal government under a 2012 continuing resolution. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, the measure would solve one element of DoD’s budget problem this year — money is deposited in the wrong accounts and cannot be reallocated under the continuing resolution.
The following is a timeline of DoD’s furlough process, from first proposal notices being sent to the beginning of the first furlough period. These dates are subject to change.
March 21-25: Furlough proposal notices are sent to employees. (Employees have seven days to appeal.)
March 28-April 1: Employee appeal period ends.
March 29-April 24: Furlough decision letters are sent to employees (based on when proposal notice was sent and before the first day of the furlough).
April 25: Furlough period begins and will extend through 11 pay periods between April 21 and Sept. 21, 2013.
*This information was provided by Pentagon Spokesman CDR Bill Speaks.
The Air Force’s chief of staff said last week that the bill could let his service cancel civilian furloughs in 2013, but Hale said DoD is not yet willing to adopt that prediction for the department as a whole until a bill is actually passed and signed.
“It would get the money in the right places. It would correct that problem, which is not trivial,” Hale said. “It doesn’t solve all of our problems though. It leaves sequestration in place, and it doesn’t fix our [overseas contingency operating] accounts. But there might be some opportunity in there to reprogram funds to meet some of those problems.”
Even if Congress does nothing, Hale said he doesn’t think furloughs will become an ongoing phenomenon in DoD, assuming Congress passes a budget for 2014. The Budget Control Act, the law which created sequestration, mandates caps on military spending for the next 10 years that are about $50 billion per year below what the Pentagon’s current plans call for. If the caps stay in place, Hale said DoD will have to revise its strategy, unveiled a year ago. The military would almost certainly reduce the total number of uniformed troops and civilians who support them.
“The only reason we’re doing furloughs is that we’re facing this five months into the fiscal year,” he said. “It would actually cost money in the first year to do [reductions in force] because we’d have to make separation payments and pay for unused leave, so RIFs were not an option, it would have made the situation worse. On the other hand, if we know we’re going to a lower level of personnel later on, we will have to go to RIFs of civilians and involuntary separations of military forces.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.