Most of the 8,700 Wright-Patterson civilian employees among the 350,000 Department of Defense workers sent home on emergency furlough will return to work this week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced Saturday.
The Pentagon did not have an estimate of how many, but in a conference call with reporters on Saturday, Department of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale said he expected 90 percent or more of the furloughed employees will be called back. “No more than a few tens of thousands will remain on furlough and it may be substantially less than that,” he said.
“We’ll do it just as quickly as we can,” Hale told reporters. “We want them back.”
Wright-Patterson spokesman Daryl Mayer said Saturday work supervisors will need time time to determine which and how many employees would be recalled. He expected the number will be known Monday. “We have already started the process to identify eligible employees and hope to initiate the recall process soon,” a base statement said. “While we believe all our employees should be brought back, this is welcome news and we are grateful to take this important step forward.”
Employees who contribute to the “morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members” will be told to report to work, Hagel said in a statement. Also, workers whose long-term absence would cause undo harm, such as intelligence analysts and those who are involved in acquisition, contracting and logistics, will be called back, Hale said. Those are key areas of employment at Wright-Patterson at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center and Air Force Materiel Command headquarters.
Hale said military commanders would decide when to recall reserve and Guard technicians, who are dual civilian and military personnel, back to the job.
Pentagon officials worked with Department of Justice lawyers to interpret the “Pay Our Military Act,” which Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law just prior to a partial federal government shutdown. The law allowed the Defense Department to bring back most but not all civilian employees while the shutdown continues, but does not apply to reservists and Guardsmen, defense officials said.
‘A good step forward’
“It’s clearly a good step forward for the Dayton economy and for national defense and we can only hope that the rest of the government can be put back to work as soon as possible,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C.
The furlough of the Wright-Patterson employees has had a $5 million economic impact based on the loss of $2.1 million in employees’ wages daily, according to base officials.
“I’m grateful that this is resolved, and I’m glad that folks are back to work because we all know it would have had a significant economic impact if we let this continue in the direction it was going,” Phillip L. Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said Saturday.
Troy Tingey, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 214, said he was glad many workers will return to their jobs, but disappointed everyone won’t. His union represents thousands of employees at Air Force bases across the country, including Wright-Patterson.
“It’s very disheartening that we’re not getting everybody back to work and we’re getting this budget passed and taken care of,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton and chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said civilian employees should never have been furloughed under the “Pay Our Military Act.” He had sent letters to Obama and Hagel asking why civilian workers had been kept off the job, and co-sponsored the “Support Our Armed Services Act,” which would return to work all defense civilian and contractor employees.
“The president should not have furloughed anyone at the Department of Defense,” he said Saturday. “The law that we passed said that all civilians that work in support of the armed forces” were exempt.
Repeated attempts were made Friday and Saturday to reach White House officials for comment.
Todd Harrison, a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said some federal officials had complained the law wasn’t clear on who could and could not be furloughed.
Hale said federal employee pay freezes, six unpaid furlough days this summer and the partial shutdown have “seriously damaged civilian morale,” adversely impacted military readiness and disrupted planning for a round of sequester budget cuts.
The shutdown has been felt immediately at Wright-Patterson. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force was temporally closed. Classes at the Air Force Institute of Technology were suspended. Flights at the 445th Airlift Wing were curtailed.
Even a partial shutdown “brings a suspension of many support activities that contribute to the effectiveness of the fighting force,” said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. “Even a little thing like all of the domestic commissaries closing has an impact on morale.”
The shutdown arrived just weeks after an unpaid furlough of six days for 10,000 civil service workers at Wright-Patterson and more than 600,000 within the Department of Defense. Those were caused by billions of dollars in automatic cuts under budget sequestration. The shutdown has come as Republicans in the House have refused to pass a federal budget that does not delay or de-fund the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats in the Senate have rejected any budget proposals that cripple the ACA.
National security at risk?
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed this week the furlough of thousands of intelligence agency workers, such as those at NASIC, put the nation at greater risk of a terrorist attack.
In a statement to Congress, Feinstein said a total of 72 percent of the civilian intelligence workforce throughout several federal government agencies was sent home because of the government shutdown. The figure was based on a report from National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
“Simply stated, this is unacceptable,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The failure of this Congress to perform its most basic functions means that our country is at heightened risk of terrorist attack.”
The lack of intelligence analysts could put soldiers in the field and diplomats in embassies overseas at risk, Feinstein said.
As with the sequester this year, the shutdown had adversely affected Air Force readiness while the service has struggled to replace an aging fleet, Thompson said. Air Combat Command, which flies fighter jet and bomber operations, had curtailed flights because of the shutdown.
“I think you need to look at the shutdown as just the latest installment in a series of budget setbacks that are really damaging the Air Force,” Thompson said. “You can’t do this to a military service without it having a negative impact on readiness.
Defense industry waits
The defense industry could have faced “tens of thousands” of furloughs if the shutdown continued, according to the Aerospace Industries Association.
But that concern was apparently averted Saturday when defense officials said Defense Contract Management Agency inspectors, who audit and approve parts and production of military equipment, would be brought back on the job. The AIA had warned many production lines may have had to shut down without the inspectors.
Without them, for example, United Technologies’ Sikorsky Aircraft announced it would layoff 2,000 workers Monday in three states working on production lines for the Black Hawk helicopter. That number could have doubled a week later and exceed 5,000 workers by next month, the company said.
GE Aviation spokesman Matt Benvie said in an email government contracts awarded prior to the shutdown were unaffected.
“In the short term, we may see a decrease in productivity in working with our government customers who are furloughed,” he said in an email last week. “Employment remains stable at GE Aviation and that’s driven by strong domestic and international demand for our products.”
The government shutdown would cause 29 percent of contractors to delay hiring, according to an Oct. 1 survey of 925 members of the National Association of Government Contractors. Fifty-eight percent of respondents reported the shutdown would have negative effect on their business.
Deborah Gross, executive director of the Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association, said many defense contractors have waited to find out the future of government contracts and depend on answers from bureaucrats who were furloughed.
“All that just sits because the government is not there to do (its) job,” she said.
The “haphazard” way politicians have dealt with the federal budget has hurt the defense industry, she said.
“We are at a point in America where we need to be as productive as we possibly can be and our elected officials have thrown roadblocks in front of us making us nonproductive,” she said. “It’s pretty absurd.”
She’s concerned the retention of a skilled workforce could become an issue. “I think we’re going to lose huge talent and I think our region just cannot afford to tolerate losing that kind of talent,” she said.
At Modern Technology Solutions Inc., the shutdown could have had a mixed impact depending on when defense contracts expire, said Scott Coale, director of operations of MTSI’s Beavercreek office of 55 employees. The company offers consulting and professional services, such as modeling simulation, to Wright-Patterson.
Prior to Saturday’s announcement by the Pentagon, company officials were “having to go through contract to contract” to determine the status of contracted work, said Coale, a retired vice commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
The company has not laid off any employees in Beavercreek, but if the partial shutdown became prolonged it may have had to ask employees to take vacation time or go on unpaid leave, he said.
The months of budget uncertainty has led defense companies to curb hiring and slow or stop investment in research and development on projects that could benefit national defense, he said.
“We’re not hiring or willing to take the risk we have in the past,” he said. “I think there’s a reluctance right now in companies to invest because they don’t know what the future holds.”
The Air Force Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson, furloughed 24,000 civilian workers at nine bases across the country, including 1,000 within the AFMC headquarters building, according to spokesman Ron Fry.
“Every one of these people supports our mission in some way and their absence is being felt,” Fry said in an email Friday. He did not have additional information Saturday after the Defense Department announcement on ending most furloughs.
AFMC, which manages roughly $50 billion in Air Force accounts, has the core missions of science and technology research and development, “cradle to grave” life cycle management of aircraft and equipment, and test and evaluation.
The Air Force Research Laboratory fared better than most other defense agencies during the partial shutdown. AFRL kept most of its 4,000 civilian employees off furlough time with money from the previous fiscal year, said Ricky Peters, AFRL executive director.
“On the heels of six days of furlough this summer, even though the workforce is still here, this is still another hit to morale,” he said.
Because of the shutdown, the agency stopped awarding small business contracts temporarily, he said.
Col. Cassie B. Barlow, 88th Air Base Wing commander at Wright-Patterson, said in an interview last week while the base has continued to send airmen “down range” on wartime operations to Afghanistan and elsewhere, the wide-ranging impact of the shutdown postponed all but emergency maintenance and closed some base facilities.
It’s also raised questions among the 3,200 “excepted” civilian employees concerned about whether they will be paid while they continue to work in jobs deemed critical, she said. Defense officials said Saturday those employees would be paid for their work.