Update: Fort Benning recalls nearly 1,000 civilian workers, post commissary reopens

National Infantry Museum back to normal, while some boat landings reopened at West Point Lake

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 7, 2013 

Fort Benning said Monday it has recalled nearly 1,000 of the estimated 2,700 civilian workers furloughed a week ago amid a partial government shutdown.

The Fort Benning Commissary also reopened its doors following Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s statement on Saturday that the Pay Our Military Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama allows more civilians to return to mission-essential duties across the U.S.

Jennifer Gunn, a public affairs specialist with the Maneuver Center of Excellence, said some of the furloughed workers were back on the job early Monday.

“If they weren’t here the first thing this morning, their supervisors were calling them and telling them that they could come back to work, and basically setting a time that they could report in,” she said.

The commissary on Marne Road, meanwhile, was back in shopping mode early Monday, said Rick Brink, public affairs officer with the Defense Commissary Agency at Fort Lee, Va.

“They are a seven-day operation, so they resumed normal store hours today,” he said.

The military supermarket is used by active-duty military — who were not put on furlough — and military retirees in the Columbus-Phenix City area. The store closed Oct. 2 after selling as many of its perishable goods as possible.

The civilian recall also was welcome news for the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center just outside Fort Benning. The museum is operated jointly by the U.S. Army and the National Infantry Foundation, with federal civilians staffing four of the key galleries — those covering World I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam wars, and the modern era.

“This is especially good for some of the groups, like reunion groups, who have planned their trips to Columbus and Fort Benning months in advance,” said foundation communications director Cyndy Cerbin. “It was unfortunate when they got here that they couldn’t see some of the gallery spaces that were important to them. But we won’t have to tell them that anymore.”

She said the museum should open fully operational at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The furlough reduction did not ripple down to West Point Lake north of Columbus, a recreation area operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its day-use parks and campgrounds were closed last week, although a handful of boat ramps have been reopened since so people can put their fishing vessels into the lake, said Bob Chitwood, West Point Lake’s assistant operations manager.

“The restrooms or the toilet buildings at those boat ramps are locked because we don’t have sufficient maintenance crew to keep them clean,” he said.

Chitwood said he was not among those furloughed Oct. 1, a designation that the government calls an “excepted position.” But that doesn’t mean he’s flush with any cash.

“When we enter our time in the system, it goes under a code called DP, which is deferred pay. So that means we’re supposed to get paid eventually. I don’t know that my mortgage company’s going to understand that code,” Chitwood remarked, tongue in cheek.

With the Fort Benning civilian workers being called back, Gunn confirmed that essential missions such as infantry and armor training at the installation have continued throughout the partial government shutdown.

The post has just under 3,900 appropriated fund employees, with roughly 2,700 put on emergency unpaid furloughs a week ago, which is about 70 percent of the installation’s civilian staffing.

Those 3,900 employees work with the garrison command, the Training and Doctrine Command and Medical Command workers, although the latter has not been impacted as much because of the critical nature of maintaining medical and health-care services.

Gunn stressed that those civilians not called back to their jobs Monday are still considered “vital” to the post’s long-term mission.

“But, obviously, we had to a take a really tough look at what those things were that fell under the provisions of that act,” she said. “This act didn’t allow us to recall everybody back. We wish we could, but we just couldn’t.”

She noted the Pay Our Military Act that allowed the partial reduction in furloughs also lets non-furloughed civilians use annual or sick leave, which was not previously allowed under the furlough rules.

The weeklong furlough enters its second week with members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives failing to resolve their budget dispute. House Republicans are demanding that the Affordable Care Act be postponed for another year, with Democrats and Obama refusing that stipulation.

On Saturday, Hagel called for the return of as many civilian workers as possible to their respective jobs. His order was made after consultations with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Officials, he said, “concluded that the (Pay Our Military Act) law does allow the Department of Defense to eliminate furloughs for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”

Hagel directed all defense activities and installations to identify employees who might fall under several categories, then bring back as many as necessary. Those included a wide range of areas, ranging from family support and human resource operations to acquisition program oversight and maintenance of weapons systems.

“I expect us to be able to significantly reduce — but not eliminate — civilian furloughs under this process,” said Hagel, who also urged Congress to pass legislation funding the government fully to end the “damaging and irresponsible furloughs.”

Related stories:

Lawmakers, Fort Benning, locals react to federal gov't shutdown

Federal government shutdown: Who gets paid, who doesn't and what's going to close

Furloughed civilians eligible for unemployment checks

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