More than 2,800 civilian employees at Offutt Air Force Base have been left to ponder what life would be like if their paychecks were suddenly cut by 20 percent.
That would be the effect of a proposed furlough plan announced by the Pentagon, one that would likely take effect if President Barack Obama and Congress are unable to reach an agreement to stop deep, automatic federal budget cuts.
Julie Sheehan, vice president of Offutt's civilian employees union, said her email has been filling up and phone ringing constantly since an email went out earlier this month informing workers of the possible furloughs.
“We're scared,” she said. “A lot of us are living on the edge as it is.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that if the automatic cuts kick in March 1, he may be compelled to furlough the vast majority of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers. Under the plan, most civilians would lose one day of work per week for 22 weeks, which would be reflected in their paychecks. The furloughs would probably begin in late April.
Civilians make up more than a fourth of Offutt's 10,222 assigned personnel. As of 2012, there were 2,830 civilian employees at Offutt; slightly more than a dozen were in units based overseas.
About 1,149 of the civilians were attached to U.S. Strategic Command, and 1,045 worked for the 55th Wing, an Air Force unit with a worldwide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. An additional 236 worked for the Air Force Weather Agency, with the rest associated with smaller units at the base.
Civilians — many veterans themselves — perform a variety of roles critical to the operation of the base, often working alongside and performing the same duties as uniformed personnel. They man security posts. They provide medical care. They work on aircraft. They forecast weather around the globe. They make up the entire Fire Department. Few lines of work at the base exclude them.
Sheehan said the average civilian employee at the base is making about $38,000 a year and has not received a salary increase in three years due to a federal pay freeze. She said many civilians are particularly frustrated at the prospect of furloughs because, being around the base, they see the “astonishing” amount of waste in the Defense Department every day.
The furloughs also were blasted by the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
“These are tremendous economic hits for all of our members,” J. David Cox said in a statement. “Taking away one day's pay every week could mean the difference between covering the mortgage and putting food on the table.”
He said the patriotic and dedicated civilians deserve better than the “manufactured crisis” set up by Congress and the president in 2011 when they created the automatic cuts, called sequestration.
The idea behind sequestration was that the cuts would be so deep and painful that they would compel both sides to reach agreement on a more thought-out package of deficit reduction measures.
But now, with just over a week to go before the deadline, there is no agreement in sight. Talks have stalled over Obama's insistence on additional increased revenues from wealthy taxpayers and House Republicans' emphasis on spending cuts alone.
For the Defense Department, sequestration would mean some $45 billion in cuts. The furloughs would account for only about 10 percent of the required cuts, which Panetta warned could put at risk the Pentagon's ability to fulfill all its missions.
“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,” he said in a memo to Congress. “But there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in serious erosion of readiness across the force.”
U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., expressed frustration with the president over the possible furloughs Thursday, saying the Offutt employees “shouldn't be used as political footballs.”
Sheehan said Offutt's civilians will be watching actions in Washington closely over the next week. “There's always hope,” she said.
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