WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has, at least temporarily, put the brakes on furlough plans that would cost many of its civilian employees 20 percent of their paychecks.
That's welcome news to the 2,800 civilian employees who work at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. They faced losing one day per week of pay over the course of 22 weeks.
Official furlough notices were set to go out today, but Congress approved a continuing budget resolution Thursday that funds the government through the end of September and sparks some hope of relief.
The measure transfers more than $10 billion into Pentagon operations and maintenance accounts.
Lawmakers left in place the overall across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that spurred the furlough talk, but the hope is that by transferring money into the Pentagon accounts and granting additional flexibility, the need for defense furloughs will be reduced.
After Thursday's vote, Pentagon spokesman George Little announced a two-week delay in the official furlough notices so the department can study its options in light of Congress' action.
“We have not made any decisions on whether or not the total number of planned furlough days for fiscal year 2013 will change as a result of this delay,” Little said. “We believe the delay is a responsible step ... to assure our civilian employees that we do not take lightly the prospect of furloughs and the resulting decrease in employee pay.”
Omaha's Republican congressman, Rep. Lee Terry, said he got an illustration of just how many people in the Omaha metropolitan area would be affected when he attended a University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey game.
Both the person sitting behind him and one of the people next to him had received advance notification letters that they faced 22-day furloughs.
“They can breathe a lot easier,” Terry said.
Defense Department officials previously indicated the legislation approved by Congress would significantly reduce the need for furlough days to deal with sequestration, Terry said, and the delay is a good sign.
“Hopefully (Secretary of Defense Chuck) Hagel is listening to the generals saying that we don't need to do these furloughs, or not at the levels we expected, so let's hold off, let's get the plan down,” Terry said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., whose district includes Offutt, also welcomed the news.
“This is helpful,” Fortenberry said.
“While the legislation passed today maintains the same level of budget reductions as established in sequestration, it allows certain federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the flexibility to make decisions that won't cause unnecessary disruptions in services important to our national defense.”
The furloughs have been looming over workers at Offutt. Leaders of the base's civilian employees union recently caused a stir when they suggested the employees could take all of their furlough days during the same 30-day window in September to highlight their importance to the base.
That proposal was rejected in favor of a plan that would ensure the furloughs didn't disrupt base operations.
Union leaders did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the furlough delay.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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