Thousands in Charleston area brace for a summer of pay cuts due to budget sequester
Thousands of families in the greater Charleston area will be scaling back vacation plans, delaying major purchases and figuring out how to get by with 20 percent less income as federal budget cuts hit their paychecks.
For more than 2,600 employees at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SPAWAR), 11 consecutive “furlough Fridays” will begin July 12. For Department of Defense employees, such as food service workers at the Charleston Air Force Base Commissary, furloughs are scheduled on different days.
Workers at some of the more than two dozen other federal agencies in the Charleston area also face furloughs, and as a result many millions of dollars in payroll will disappear from the local economy.
The furloughs are being imposed on workers due to the sequester — the across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in when Congress was unable to reach a budget agreement earlier this year.
“I don’t know many people who can lose 20 percent of their income for three months and not have it impact them,” said Michelle Tompkins, whose husband Gregory works for Homeland Security at SPAWAR. “We’re cutting our budget back — no more movies — and we’re just not going to be participating much in the economy.”
For the Tompkins family, the furloughs mean they will reduce their retirement savings contributions, and Michelle will take on extra work as a graduate assistant at The Citadel. She understands people are frustrated with the government and the federal debt, generally, but said it seems unfair to patch the budget by cutting the pay of working taxpayers.
“I see the us-and-them thing that happens, but I never thought we would be the ‘them,’ ” Tompkins said.
Who are they?
Across the greater Charleston area, more than 5,000 federal workers are expected to be furloughed. Exact figures were unavailable, but SPAWAR and the two active-duty Air Force wings at Joint Base Charleston will account for about 4,000 furloughed workers, and there are many other federal departments and agencies in the area.
Who are they?
While Department of Defense employees will lose more than two weeks’ pay, those who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were expecting four furlough days but will have none, after Congress agreed last week to allow some budget flexibility.
“It’s one less thing to worry about,” said Jonathan Lamb, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the Charleston office, which was monitoring Andrea, the first tropical storm of the 2013 hurricane season this week.
Lamb said some Weather Service offices, which are part of NOAA, were already understaffed following a sequester-related hiring freeze, and furloughs could have compromised minimum staffing needs.
The federal workforce has been shrinking, and federal pay rates have not been increased since January 2010.
In Summerville, 33-year-old Leilani Mikula isn’t thrilled that her husband who works at SPAWAR will lose pay, but she sees a silver lining in the fact that her family, with two children under age 5, will have three-day weekends together for most of the summer.
“It’s a blessing, even though it’s a furlough,” Mikula said.
“It’s a chunk of change that he’s not getting paid, but we’re OK, and not stressing out about it,” she said. “We can go to the water park and the aquarium, where we have annual passes, and we’ll go to the beach and spend Fridays together.”
Mikula said that she and her husband, George, worked hard during their 11 years of marriage to become debt-free except for their mortgage, and to create an emergency fund.
Some families are well-prepared for the loss of income and others will struggle, but however individuals fare, their collective loss of pay will remove an estimated $33 million from South Carolina’s economy in July, August and September. The greater Charleston area, with it’s wealth of Department of Defense jobs, will account for a large portion of the loss, and reduced federal travel budgets could additionally reduce spending at local hotels and restaurants.
For those who aren’t employed by the government, the impact may be hard to see. Most federal employees to be furloughed are defense workers who do not provide services directly to the general public.
North Charleston leads South Carolina in retail sales, but city spokesman Ryan Johnson said that when 5,000 or more SPAWAR and Joint Base Charleston workers start taking an unpaid day off each week, the impact will be felt. Restaurants that do a big lunch business or are popular for drinks and meals after work could particularly notice furlough Fridays.
“Pretty much everyone in the command will be off on that day,” said Tommy Groves, chief of media for SPAWAR. “It affects all federal employees, whether it’s DoD, Agriculture, Homeland Security and so on.”
Several federal workers told The Post and Courier they have already started cutting back on eating lunches out of the office.
Privately employed workers whose companies have federal contracts will not be furloughed because the contracts were reached before the sequester kicked in.
The sequester furloughs are for the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. If Congress doesn’t reach a budget agreement, however, sequester cuts could continue, and federal contract workers would not be exempt.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.