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Air Force worker fitness program costs $51M in wages

Thousands of Wright-Patt workers could lose 3 hours of fitness time a week due to budget cuts.

Thousands of civilian employees at Wright-Patterson and within the Air Force Materiel Command could lose the three hours a week they currently receive for exercise, a program that cost more than $50 million in wages from 2011-12.

Command leaders say the Air Force can’t afford the health and wellness benefit with unpaid furloughs cutting 11 days off the job through September while the Pentagon struggles to cut $37 billion because of sequestration.

The Air Force wants to negotiate the benefit out of an agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees Council 214, which represents more than 6,000 Wright-Patterson workers, and smaller unions throughout the AFMC workforce of nearly 61,000 civilian workers at nine bases nationwide. Nearly 19,000 uniform service members at AFMC would keep the benefit.

Between May 2011 and May 2012, AFMC’s civilian workforce logged 1.6 million hours under the fitness and wellness program, or the equivalent of 791 work years. That’s worth an estimated $51 million in wages, according to Ron Fry, a spokesman at AFMC headquarters at Wright-Patterson.

“That’s not money we would get back,” he said in an interview. “In theory, that would be productivity that we would get back.”

The fitness time started in 2005 to “create a healthier, safer and more motivated civilian workforce,” Fry said. “However, the cost associated with lost productivity can no longer be absorbed within our decreasing budget.”

With most AFMC employees facing one-day-a-week furloughs, “we need every work hour possible,” Fry said.

Four analyses “determined the program was not as beneficial as originally envisioned,” according to Fry.

At the AFMC maintenance depot at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., the average use of sick leave was higher for those in the fitness program than those who were not. “No difference was found in the rate of injuries between participants and non-participants,” he added in an email.

“Our analysis combined with the current fiscal constraints led us to our decision to give notice of intent to eliminate the program,” Fry wrote.

Troy Tingey, AFGE Council 214 president who is based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, said the union wants more information on AFMC’s claims.

“We’re just going to make them prove that it’s not worth keeping and we’re going to be asking for a lot of data because we think that’s the right thing,” he said in a telephone interview.

One worker at Wright-Patterson, Justin Bell, runs on work time up to three hours a week. The 31-year-old Dayton man said it’s time to rally workers to keep the program and said eliminating it would hurt morale, especially dealing with the stress of mandatory days off work without pay.

“The idea that this has been supported by at least three AFMC commanders as a top priority and now to be entirely eliminated is just quite upsetting,” said Bell. “Especially considering the furlough going on.”

Bell, a union labor negotiator, said sick leave usage doesn’t necessarily correlate with fitness time on the job. Employees can use personal sick time, for example, to care for a sick child or parent.

Thomas C. Robinson, an AFGE Council 214 executive assistant who has helped negotiate the health and wellness agreement, said the investment pays dividends.

“You get it back in longevity and health and general vigor of our workforce and morale,” he said.

Employees must sign an agreement form and provide a doctor’s statement to participate in the fitness program using base facilities. But they can use the hours for more than just physical fitness. Among the alternatives, the Civilian Health Promotion Services program where they might enroll in health and wellness classes to quit smoking, deal with sleep disorders, or learn about nutrition. They also may use the time to seek services through the Employee Assistance Program or Family Support Center. Part-time employees may participate with credited hours determined on a pro-rated basis. Participants must keep a diary of their activities and a manager can cancel the sessions if abuse is found, according to the agreement.

AFMC does not compile data on how many employees have been cited for abuse of the program, said Deborah S. Csutoras, a command spokeswoman at Wright-Patterson. “That would be left between the supervisor and the employee,” she said.

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