The Pentagon will cut the number of furlough days for its civilian employees from 11 to six, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday.
Hagel said several factors played into the decision. Primarily, Hagel said in a memo to top military and defense officials, Congress agreed in mid-May to give the Pentagon some budget flexibility, allowing it to shift funds to day-to-day operating accounts. Additionally, certain 2013 costs — such as equipment removal from Afghanistan — have come in under budget or were pushed to 2014, allowing for further budget flexibility, he added in a statement.
“As a result of these management initiatives, reduced costs, and reprogramming from Congress, we have determined that we can make some improvements in training and readiness and still meet the sequestration cuts,” Hagel said.
Since early July, most of the Defense Department’s 650,000-plus civilian employees have been forced to stay home one day each week. With the furlough reduction, almost all employees will return to full employment by Aug. 17.
The move was met with relief, but caused some unions to accuse the Pentagon of using its civilian employees as bargaining chips to gain budget flexibility from Congress. The American Federation of Government Employees — the largest federal employees union — called on the Pentagon to go further and pay back furloughed employees for time lost.
“The hardworking men and women who support our military were exploited by Pentagon officials to send a political message to Congress about sequestration,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Now that these same officials have admitted that the furlough was unnecessary, the only fair thing to do is to make full financial restitution to the employees who were harmed.”
Todd Harrison, DOD budget expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said he believes the Pentagon is “legitimately trying to do its best to mitigate damage from the sequester.” But as a result, DOD has weakened its 2014 budget negotiating power.
“The problem is that doing a good job managing sequestration hurts DOD politically because it previously issued such dire warnings about the consequences of sequestration,” he said. “Now that many of the worst outcomes predicted have been avoided for FY13, DOD has a credibility problem with Congress. It looks like they were crying wolf.”
While the Pentagon will meet its sequestration cuts — $37 billion — by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, it has still not completely addressed how it would meet budget shortfalls should sequestration continue into 2014. As Hagel outlined in his statement, DOD would have to shave an additional $52 billion off its 2014 budget.
“Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs,” he said.
Last week, the Pentagon released the results of a four-month budget review, which estimated it might have to cut active-duty Army personnel up to 15 percent to meet sequester cuts and maintain functionality in the event of continued sequester.
The budget review did not include any estimates of sequestration’s possible impact on the civilian workforce. The initial 11 furlough days announced this year were supposed to save DOD $2 billion.
“I want to thank our civilian workforce for their patience and continued dedication to our mission during these extraordinarily tough times,” Hagel said in his memo to top defense and military officials. “I regret the difficulties they and their families had to face during this furlough period.”