DOD furloughs workers not paid through budget funds

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 17, 2013

It just doesn’t make sense.

Not to thousands of Department of Defense (DOD) workers. Not to Democrats. Not to Republicans.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Almost no one likes the budget cuts known as the sequester, but everyone understands those cuts have led to the furlough of many federal employees.

But why must employees who are not paid from federal budget appropriations be hit with unpaid leave days, too?

That’s the situation for staffers paid through the Defense Department’s working capital funds. They work for department components that sell goods and services to others. The workers are paid from the fees customers pay and not from congressional budget appropriations.

So, if they aren’t costing Uncle Sam budget dollars, why does the Pentagon insist on furloughing them?

“The Department does not want to furlough any of its valued civilian employees but must do so to help meet these budgetary shortfalls,” said Robert F. Hale, the undersecretary of defense, in a July 5 letter to Congress. “Furloughs of civilians at working capital fund activities are legal and result in personnel cost savings.”

Hale’s letter has not silenced critics. Members of Congress want Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to personally brief them, and leaders of employee organizations say the DOD policy is dead wrong.

“Quite frankly, we do not understand why the Department of Defense did not choose to exempt these workers from furlough in the first place,” said William R. Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). “This is a really important decision for DOD. Approximately 180,000 Defense workers are funded through Defense Working Capital Fund — about one-third of all the Defense workers facing furloughs.”

The personnel cost savings Hale cited come at personal cost to people such as Laurie Vroman, a management assistant at the Army’s Watervliet Arsenal in Watervliet, N.Y. She and her colleagues will lose 11 days through the end of the fiscal year in September, which will equal a 20 percent cut in pay during that period.

“I am a single mom of 3 children ages 5, 6, & 8,” she said by e-mail. “I lived paycheck to paycheck prior to furlough so it is difficult enough. During the summer, my childcare costs go up making it even harder for me. As of right now, I am using coupons as much as possible in addition to cutting out trips with the kids that will cost me money. I have also chosen to stop paying my student loans because I can’t afford to right now. The government is taking money from me that they shouldn’t be so they will have to wait for their money from the student loans as keeping a roof over my family’s head and food on the table is more important.”

“Arsenal” once meant a place where weapons are stored. It’s much more in today’s Army.

“From metal forging to fabrication to painting and packaging, the Arsenal’s workforce believes it can produce any machined product from a valid design,” says the agency’s Web site.

It’s a government agency, but it works and promotes itself like a business. The Web site says the agency offers “military or civilian business entities a one-stop shop for research, design, prototype development, and full-service manufacturing support.”

The arsenal gets paid by its customers for that support, and those fees pay the arsenal’s workers. That means furloughing them doesn’t save budget money.

“We don’t think that furloughing [Defense Working Capital Fund] employees is reasonable,” said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association (FMA). “There is no logical business case for applying ‘across the board’ furlough guidance to DWCF activities. The premise behind furlough is supposed to be to save appropriated funds. Furloughing these employees does not do that since they’re paid through sale of their products and services.”

Money isn’t the only issue.

“The process we are going through right now to handle this furlough has caused negative morale issues and resulted in a less-efficient operating environment,” said Cebron E. O’Bier Jr., who works at the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Tex. He is a local NFFE president but gets furloughed just the same. As a result, he’s cutting back on classes toward an electronics degree, he said, because “my income is going to be less.”

House Republicans and Democrats agree that the employees should not be furloughed, but in keeping with their partisan divide, each party sent separate letters to Hagel a day apart last week. They want him to explain what’s going on.

The GOP letter had 25 signatures, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the majority whip, and had a more partisan tone. It, and the letter from 11 Democrats, led by Rep. Derek Kilmer (Wash.), asked the same thing — for Hagel to explain the Pentagon’s decision.

Both Democrats and Republicans were unsatisfied with the answers Hale provided in his letter and requested a briefing by Hagel.

The Pentagon has not responded to requests for comment.

Undersecretary Hale, in his letter, said working capital fund furloughs will amount to about $500 million of the $2 billion in savings the department expects in this fiscal year.

“We disagree with the Undersecretary’s rationale and maintain that continuing with these furloughs is a bad policy that will cost taxpayers’ money and damage our nation’s civilian defense workforce over the long term,” McCarthy’s letter said.

For Dougan, the bottom line is clear: “It doesn’t make any sense to furlough Working Capital Fund employees because it does not save DOD or American taxpayers a single nickel to do so.”

All this leaves Karen Heiser, Watervliet Arsenal’s chief of quality systems and continuous improvement, feeling “disrespected and devalued.”

“I feel similar to the way I felt a couple of years ago when Hurricane Irene caused severe flooding by my home and violently washed my road away — helpless and caught in a situation I had nothing to do with,” she said, making it clear she was speaking as an FMA member and not for the arsenal.

“But this time I’m angry as well because this isn’t an act of nature,” she added. “It’s an act of bad government.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Read previous columns by Joe Davidson at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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