The Bayonet: Fort Benning braces for civilian furloughs

A Fort Benning GS-9 federal employee could expect to see $600-$800 less in monthly take-home pay if Congress does not avert sequestration in the coming days. Civilian employees could be furloughed for 22 discontinuous days — roughly a day per week — beginning in April and face a 20 percent loss in income under sequestration. These automatic across-the-board spending cuts will be triggered Friday unless Congress agrees to an alternative.

The threat of impending furloughs was the main topic of Monday’s town hall for civilian employees at McGinnis-Wickam Hall. The Maneuver Center of Excellence’s chief of staff and a panel of representatives addressed the concerns of a packed auditorium.

Sequestration is one of two contributors to the current fiscal uncertainty facing the Army, said panel member Janice Johnson, director of the G8 budgeting office. The Army has also been forced to operate under a continuing resolution since the beginning of the fiscal year. A continuing resolution is a type of appropriations legislation used by Congress to fund government agencies if a formal appropriations bill has not been signed into law by the end of the fiscal year. It directs and provides funding for federal programs at a reduced level. The lack of a defense budget is expected to end March 27.

Sequestration is a formal term for mandatory cuts in federal programs. It is a process of cordoning off money that has been authorized by Congress, but prohibited from being spent. If it takes effect Friday, furloughs could begin the third week of April.

The Maneuver Center faces roughly $40 million in budget reductions, Johnson said.

The installation is reviewing ways to execute reductions in spending as directed by the Department of the Army, specifically in the areas of supplies, equipment, travel and civilian pay. Training and staff visits have been reduced to only those that are mission critical. Travel and administrative expenses are being cut by 50 percent.

Fort Benning is also looking at immediate reductions in contract expenditures, Johnson said.

“We are looking at contracts to find where we can garner savings. We’ve identified several million dollars that we will not spend this fiscal year,” she said.

The Army’s budget is heavy on payroll so it must also reduce its civilian workforce costs, she said. Fort Benning continues to endure a hiring freeze and is in the final process of releasing temporary and term employees. To minimize the effects, the Army is offering early retirement incentives for eligible employees.

Many military-civilian families with spouses in the civilian workforce will be directly impacted, along with veterans and retirees. The Department of Defense is the nation’s largest employer of veterans, according to the Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service.

Many initiatives in the last decade of war have helped veterans, wounded warriors and spouses to find federal employment, including an executive order in 2009 signed by President Obama to make hiring veterans a top priority. Roughly 49 percent of Fort Benning’s DA civilian workforce is comprised of military veterans.

“From a personal perspective, and for us as an Army, it kind of broke the faith,” said Col. Robert Choppa, MCoE chief of staff, of recently informing employees of their termination. “But it’s what we have to do.”

President Obama’s weekly address urged Congress to act before sequestration is triggered Friday. He cautioned that sequestration “will leave many families who are already stretched to the limit scrambling to figure out what to do” and could lead to layoffs of thousands of teachers and educators.

The acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Jessica Wright, told reporters last week hours at post exchanges and commissaries may be cut and family programs could be affected.

Spending cuts will also affect military health care since a large percentage of personnel working in these facilities are civilians, she said. It is not yet known how furloughs will be felt within the DoD Educational Activity, which is responsible for all elementary, middle and high schools on military installations within the continental U.S.

Martin Army Community Hospital commander Col. Tim Lamb addressed questions about how the impact of sequestration and the continuing resolution will be felt at the installation’s hospital. The Department of Defense military health system is one of the largest contributors to the defense budget, with costs of more than $34 billion annually. Fort Benning’s hospital is facing a funding reduction of $24 million, he said.

“We will not compromise on health and health care,” the MACH commander said. “Furlough, as we plan it at Martin Army, will be the absolute last thing that will happen Some departments at Martin Army no doubt will be cut we are going to take a hard look to make sure we don’t impact patient care so it’s going to be on a case-by-case basis.”

Lamb said the secretary of defense, secretary of the Army and the Army surgeon general identified four programs to be protected: the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, all warrior care programs that directly link to warrior transition units, behavioral health programs and the patient center medical home. Among changes MACH beneficiaries should expect to see are more generic drugs dispensed instead of costlier brand names.

Terry Beckwith, public affairs officer for the hospital, said families should plan ahead for increased pharmacy wait times once furloughs take effect.

In a message sent to all DoD personnel last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said “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.”

He added that he is “deeply concerned about the potential direct damage of sequestration.”

For more information and updates on furloughs and sequestration, visit www.benning.army.mil/123.

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