The Pentagon notified Congress on Wednesday it will be furloughing its civilian workforce of 800,000 employees if sequestration goes into effect March 1.
Defense officials have warned lawmakers that sequestration will devastate the military and lead to a hollow force, but the civilian furloughs will be one of the first major impacts felt by the across-the-board cuts.
The Pentagon furloughs will affect civilians across the country. Pentagon officials have said that civilians could face up to 22 days of furloughs, one per week, through the end of the fiscal year in September. The employees would receive 30 days’ notice before being furloughed.
“We are doing everything possible to limit the worst effects on DOD personnel — but I regret that our flexibility within the law is extremely limited,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in a message to the department. “The president has used his legal authority to exempt military personnel funding from sequestration, but we have no legal authority to exempt civilian personnel funding from reductions.”
The Joint Chiefs also testified before both the House and Senate last week to lay out the dangers of sequestration, as the Pentagon has taken a much more proactive approach to the cuts than when they were set to hit in January.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters Wednesday that the furloughs would save between $4 bill and $5 billion in 2013. The Pentagon would have to cut $46 billion under sequestration.
Hale said that most of the Defense Department’s near-800,000 civilian workforce would face furloughs, but there would be exceptions, including foreign workers on overseas bases and those working in combat zones.
Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright said that furloughs were “not a Beltway phenomenon,” as roughly 80 percent of DOD civilian workers lived outside the Washington, D.C., metro area.
The potential for furloughs was one of the few things DOD officials announced before the Jan. 2 deadline, which was delayed two months in the “fiscal-cliff” deal.
President Obama on Tuesday spoke to first-responders who he also warned could be furloughed due to sequestration. He urged Republicans to compromise and stop the cuts.
Obama will be on the road again next week with campaign-style events arguing that Republicans are at fault for the cuts, while the GOP blames the White House for the sequester.
“Republicans in Congress face a simple choice,” the president said Tuesday. “Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and healthcare and national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?”
But Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in response to the Pentagon furloughs that Obama has yet to put forward a plan to stop the across-the-board cuts, while the House has passed an alternative.
“I agree with the secretary of Defense that the impact of the president’s sequester would be devastating to our military,” Boehner said in a statement. “That’s why the House has acted twice to replace the president’s sequester with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national security, and it’s why I’ve been calling on the president for more than a year to press his Democratic-controlled Senate to do the same.”
The back-and-forth is part of a blame game between the White House and congressional Republicans as the cuts are less than two weeks out, with no apparent movement to stop them before March 1.
Preparations for cuts from sequestration and the department’s budget uncertainty are continuing in the defense industry.
BAE Systems notified 3,600 employees Tuesday that they could be laid off over a loss of work from the Navy, due primarily to the Pentagon facing a continuing resolution.
Bill Clifford, president of BAE Systems Ship Repair, told Ship Repair employees that the notifications under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act were going out to employees at four BAE locations in Norfolk, Va., Mayport, Fla., San Diego and Hawaii.
“We do not take these decisions lightly, and we regret the anxiety it causes our employees and their families. I also recognize this news is unsettling, but rest assured we are working closely with our Navy customer and members of Congress to mitigate the impact of these proposed reductions,” Clifford wrote.
The WARN Act notices were a major political fight between Congress and the Obama administration during the 2012 campaign. After defense contractors threatened sending out mass notices before sequestration, the administration told contractors not to issue them 60 days before the cuts took effect — and also took the step of promising to cover layoff costs if contractors had to immediately fire workers.
In this case, BAE appears to be issuing the notices with enough time that it will follow the WARN law and not incur extra costs.