More than 700,000 civilian defense workers will be forced to take 14 days of furloughs instead of 22 between April and the end of the fiscal year, officials said, softening the blow of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
The decision Wednesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel comes a week after the Pentagon announced it was delaying final furlough notices to its civilian workforce until April 5 so budget experts could analyze whether the stopgap budget passed by Congress could avert some of the unpaid leave.
“It’s better news, but we’re not going to be able to eliminate furloughs,” Hagel said during a news conference on Thursday.
The unpaid time off still leaves the military with among the largest number of furloughs of all federal employees to result from sequestration.
The stopgap budget, known as a continuing resolution, gives the Defense Department some flexibility to carry out the cuts.
Presently, the military needs to find $41 billion in cuts by the end of the fiscal year, Hagel said. That figure is slightly lower than an earlier estimate of $46 billion in needed spending reductions.
Defense officials had said for weeks that civilians would be required to take one day a week off with pay for 22 weeks starting in late April, amounting to a 20 percent pay cut for five months.
The continuing resolution did not give the Pentagon more money, but it allowed the agency to shift $10.4 billion into its operations and maintenance accounts, which pay civilian salaries. Active duty personnel are exempt from the cuts.
Officials have been meeting over the past week to see if they could reduce the furlough days from the 22 they have said for weeks would be necessary to meet the spending cuts.
Under the new plan, the 14 unpaid days would start in June, not late April, as originally planned. Some civilians, such as those serving in war zones and in critical public safety jobs, will be exempt, although defense officials have not said how many.
While some military services can consider eliminating the furloughs altogether, senior leaders concluded that it would be more fair to treat all civilians across the defense department equally.
The news of fewer unpaid days removed some, but hardly all of the sting of lost pay for many civilians.
“I’m still giving up my vacation this summer,” said Bert Whitlow, an electronics engineer for the Air Force in Southern Illinois.
Whitlow and his wife have a timeshare in Florida, but the lost pay will make going there impossible this year, he said.
Unions representing civilian defense employees questioned why any furloughs are needed now that the continuing resolution gave the Pentagon such a huge boost to its salary budget.
“At some point folks have to ask the question, who is actually behind this draconian furlough policy at the Pentagon?” said Matthew S. Biggs, legislative and political director of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. “This smells pretty political at this point, with DOD civilian workers being used as pawns.”
American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox, Sr., called the furloughs “absolutely unnecessary.”
“DOD claimed that furloughing civilian workers for 22 days would save $5 billion,” Cox said in a statement. “After receiving an additional $10 million, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that there is no budgetary rationale for furloughing employees for even a single hour.”
Pentagon employees leaving work on Thursday also questioned the need for furloughs.
“We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in about four years,” said a civilian defense employee who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak with the media. “After that, I don’t understand why we need to do this at all.”