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Prepare to be furloughed, Panetta tells Defense Department workers

The Defense Department on Wednesday told its nearly 800,000 civilian federal employees that should sequestration occur, it “will be forced to place the vast majority” of them on unpaid furloughs.

The memo from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is the latest in a long line of warnings from the Pentagon and other agencies about potential furloughs from automatic budget cutting set to hit March 1 unless a law delays or prevents that sequestration.

“In the event of sequestration we will do everything we can to be able to continue to perform our core mission of providing for the security of the United States, but there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force,” the memo says.

“I have also been deeply concerned about the potential direct impact of sequestration on you and your families,” Panetta wrote. “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. 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. As a result, should sequestration occur and continue for a substantial period, DoD will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian workforce on administrative furlough.”

While the memo does not provide specifics, earlier guidance from the individual military services has anticipated furloughing employees for one day a week, starting in mid-April and continuing through September.

Those directives further said that nearly all employees will be subject to furlough. Navy guidance released Tuesday, for example, said that exceptions for civil service employees would be allowed only for those in combat zones, those “needed to prevent unacceptable risk or catastrophic gaps in the safety and protection of life or property,” or those working at self-supporting operations such as officers’ clubs that are not funded through the Treasury.

The furloughs could not start until April because of a required notice period. In addition, in unionized workplaces certain details, such as scheduling, would be subject to bargaining.

Wrote Panetta, “I can assure you that, if we have to implement furloughs, all affected employees will be provided at least 30 days’ notice prior to executing a furlough and your benefits will be protected to the maximum extent possible. We also will work to ensure that furloughs are executed in a consistent and appropriate manner, and we will also continue to engage in discussions with employee unions as appropriate.”

A similar notice was sent to Congress.

“This is sad but not unexpected news, the House Armed Services Committee predicted over a year ago that sequester would result in mass furloughs and layoffs of civilian employees,” committee chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “Since that time, the House voted twice to resolve sequester and avoid these furloughs. These men and women, many of whom have dedicated their careers to their country, deserve better than to be treated as pawns in a game of political brinksmanship.”

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many Defense Department workers, said in a statement that the furlough would amount to a 20 percent pay cut for 22 weeks.

“An employee in the middle of the pay scale, earning about $50,000 a year, takes home between $500 and $600 a week after subtracting health insurance, retirement and taxes,” he said. “Taking away one day’s pay every week could mean the difference between covering the mortgage and putting food on the table.”