Pentagon to recall most furloughed workers, Hagel says

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during an April briefing on the Defense Department's FY 2014 budget at the Pentagon.

The Pentagon will recall almost all of its 350,000 furloughed civilian workers in the coming days, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday, in a move that could substantially ease the impact of the government shutdown on the federal workforce.

Hagel’s decision is based on a liberal interpretation of a bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Obama that ensures uniformed members of the military will not have their paychecks delayed by the shutdown. The law, titled the Pay Our Military Act, includes broad language exempting Defense Department civilians from furlough if they provide direct support to the military.

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Robert F. Hale, the Pentagon comptroller, estimated that more than 90 percent of about 350,000 furloughed Defense Department employees would return to work, many of them as soon as Monday. “We hope to move very quickly,” Hale told reporters.

The Defense Department directly employs about 750,000 civilians. Pentagon officials had previously said about 400,000 of them had been furloughed because of the government shutdown. Hale revised that number Saturday, saying that 350,000 was a more accurate figure.

He said he could not precisely say how many people would be able to return to work because officials were still determining which employees qualified under the new law. He said he hoped that “no more than a few tens of thousands will remain on furlough,” and maybe even fewer than that.

“Although we’re very happy we’re getting most of our people back,” Hale added, “we haven’t solved all the problems.”

Regardless, the Pentagon announcement will dramatically scale back the government shutdown. Defense Department civilian employees had represented nearly half of the estimated 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed for the past week.

After consulting with Pentagon lawyers and other Obama administration officials in recent days, Hagel decided that he could justify recalling almost of the Pentagon’s furloughed workforce based on provisions in the Pay Our Military Act.

In a statement, Hagel said the Justice Department advised that the law would not permit a blanket recall of all civilians working for the Pentagon. But he added that attorneys for the Justice and Defense departments agreed that the law does permit the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs “for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”

Hagel said he has directed the armed services and defense agencies to determine exactly how many employees can come back to work. Workers, he said, can expect to hear from their managers starting this weekend whether they can return to their jobs.

“I expect us to significantly reduce – but not eliminate – civilian furloughs under this process,” he said. “We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible. Ultimately, the surest way to end these damaging and irresponsible furloughs, and to enable us to fulfill our mission as a Department, is for Congress to pass a budget and restore funds for the entire federal government.”

Paradoxically, however, the Pentagon’s announcement could actually relieve political pressure on lawmakers to end the shutdown by cancelling furloughs for at least 300,000 federal employees.

Moreover, Hagel’s decision could bring some relief to thousands of private contractors who work for the Defense Department but had faced the threat of layoffs because of the government shutdown. On Friday, for example, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said it would furlough about 3,000 employees next week and expects that number to grow if the budget standoff doesn’t end soon.

“I am very pleased to see so many of our national security workforce will be able to return to work,” Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Congress gave the Executive Branch broad authority to keep our Armed Forces and dedicated defense civilians working throughout the government shutdown. Though I do not believe the law required these hundreds of thousands of workers to be furloughed in the first place, it is welcome news.”

In a memo, Hagel noted that the Pay Our Military Act appropriates funds “as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to contractors” working for the Pentagon. He said that government lawyers are still “analyzing what authority is provided by this provision.”

Hagel’s memo offers some general guidance for which furloughed Defense Department employees can expect to return to work.

Those who will likely receive a green light include people who provide health care to troops and their families; buy, repair or maintain weapons systems; work at commissaries or acquire other supplies for the military.

Those who might not be covered include auditors, employees who work in public affairs or legislative affairs, or civilian employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the memo.

The Pentagon’s announcement will affect a vast global workforce. Hale said that 86 percent of the department’s civilian employees work outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Jeff Simon contributed to this report.

 
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