The secretary of defense announced Tuesday almost all of the 800,000 civilians within the Department of Defense would be furloughed for 11 days as a result of sequestration cuts, during a time in which he says Americans see "institutions, and consequently individuals, come loose of their moorings."
Chuck Hagel addressed an audience of civilian workers Tuesday at the Mark Center, a facility for roughly 6,400 Department of Defense employees in 22 organizations, built as a result of of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. He told the room of stoic faces that he and his finance team have been working with the numbers since the automatic cuts went into effect on March 1.
Other federal agencies, such as the Department of State, have been able to avoid furloughs by cutting from other funds, including private contractor budgets. Hagel said Tuesday that wouldn't be enough to find the billions DoD needs.
"We'll continue to search for ways to do better, but right now I can't run this institution into the ditch," he said. "We've taken this as close to the line as we can."
A senior defense official says the savings will amount to roughly $1.8 billion — a paltry sum for a department that spends trillions on weapons systems, but an indicator of the rigidity the mandatory cuts present. The Pentagon could not, for example, substitute those savings by nixing the funding for a new ship, the official says.
Hagel's office released a 10-page memo Tuesday providing department managers with notification of the furloughs and instructions on how to implement them.
Furloughs one day a week — or 20 percent of each employee's weekly pay — will begin on July 8 for almost all DoD civilians and run through the end of the fiscal year, which concludes at the beginning of October. Hagel says this will help account for the $30 billion deficit in the department's operations and maintenance budget, as well as $7-8 billion shortages in other areas.
Notices go out to employees starting May 28, initiating the process by which employees can petition their superiors for "exempt" status.
Department heads will also being scheduling which days of the week each specific employee will be furloughed. Some institutions, such as military commissaries, will likely opt out of entirely closing on one particular day of the week to allow shoppers to plan accordingly, another senior defense official says. Others, such as hospitals, schools, or depots, will distribute the furlough days throughout the week at their own discretion.
DoD leaders initially believed the total number of days furloughed would be as many as 22, but revised that estimate down to roughly 14 in April, when Hagel announced he would voluntarily furlough himself.
"We finally got to a point where I could not responsibly go any deeper into cutting or jeopardizing missions," Hagel said Tuesday. "I just couldn't do anymore."
Certain roles which have been deemed essential will not be furloughed, including those contributing to war efforts, such as in Afghanistan, or those who protect life or property. These account for roughly 15 percent of the total civilian workforce.
"We've got to be fair, and everybody has to be treated the same here, except for those exceptions where there is an essential role that they play," he said. "We still have a war going on. Unfortunately, we still have casualties. We have a lot of dangerous, unpredictable places in the world. I can't put this country in jeopardy by not factoring that in."
Hagel only faced four questions from the assembled crowd, including whether they will receive raises (They won't: "We've got to get through what we've got right now," he said.) and if there is any guarantee the forthcoming furloughs are a one-time affair.
"I've got some confidence that will occur," he said of budget security next fiscal year, "but I'm not going to stand here and promise you that it won't."
"My thoughts and prayers are with your families," he said in conclusion.