Unpaid furloughs for an estimated 4,300 defense workers in the Charleston area will end five weeks earlier than expected, restoring millions of payroll dollars to the local economy that were expected to be lost.
Most civilian workers at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, the Air Force Base and other facilities have been taking one day off a week without pay since July 12.
They were expecting 11 unpaid furlough days, but instead will have six, the last of which will be next week.
“Our senior leadership was just notified,” said Rosetta Alexander, chief of Public Affairs Operations at Joint Base Charleston, on Tuesday afternoon.
The Associated Press had reported the reduction in furloughs earlier in the day, citing anonymous sources. Many defense employees learned of the change from news reports, before official word of the reduction trickled down from Washington.
When Leilani Mikula of Summerville heard the news, she said it means her family will be able to stop drawing on their savings, now that her husband George, a SPAWAR employee, will be back to earning full pay.
“We will be able to put money back into our savings/emergency fund since he will return to his normal five-day work week,” she said.
For workers across the area, from commissary workers at the Air Force base to high-tech employees at SPAWAR, the reduction in furlough days adds up to a week’s pay, spread over five weeks. Multiply that pay by the roughly 4,300 workers involved, and that’s millions of dollars not coming out of the economy.
Officials said the savings that allowed a reduction in furloughs are the result of a number of things, including penny-pinching by the military services and Congress’ decision to give the Pentagon more flexibility in moving money between accounts.
Mary Graham follows military matters for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, and she said the reduction in furlough days is a relief, but noted that the federal budget issues that caused the furloughs have not been resolved.
If Congress is unable to reach a spending deal, the Department of Defense will be required to make even deeper budget cuts for the 12 months beginning Oct. 1 — spending reductions 40 percent larger than those required this year. The defense cuts of $37 billion this year and $52 billion in the next fiscal year are required because of the spending “sequester” that took effect when Congress and the White House were unable to agree on a budget plan.
In a statement Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon “began making painful and far-reaching changes” as early as January to deal with the budget cuts.
“The Air Force stopped flying in many squadrons, the Navy kept ships in port, and the Army cancelled training events,” he said. “These actions have seriously reduced military readiness.”
Unpaid furloughs of civilian employees lasting up to 22 days were anticipated. That number was later reduced to 11 days before the furloughs began in the second week of July.
The decision to further reduce the number of furlough days to six came as about 650,000 civilian workers began their fifth week of furloughs. The unpaid days off have riled department employees and prompted many to complain directly to Hagel during his visits to military bases in recent weeks, including Charleston.
During his recent visits to bases in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, Hagel was peppered with questions by civilian defense employee worried about the furloughs and their job security. Some gasped in surprise as the Pentagon chief warned that budget cuts would likely continue next year, probably triggering more furloughs and possibly layoffs.
The Charleston area already has seen some defense-related layoffs. In July Honeywell announced that it would eliminate at least 320 jobs at the command known as Army Strategic Logistics Activity Charleston, which supports equipment for the Army’s “pre-positioned” ships.
Schuyler Kropf and The Associated Press contributed to this report.