WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon moved Tuesday to ease the pain of mandatory, unpaid furloughs that civilian employees have had to bear for a month because of budgetary pressures, cutting the number of days off from 11 to six.
Defense officials said the Pentagon found sufficient savings in the final months of the current fiscal year to lessen the burden on those who have had to take a day off a week without pay since early July. As a result, the final furlough day for most workers will be next week.
Altogether, officials said they were able to identify about $1.5 billion in new savings. About $1 billion of that was used to buy back the five furlough days and another $500 million is being used to restore money for Air Force training and flight hours, along with training for about six Army brigade combat teams.
But even as they eased some of the more painful budget cuts, defense officials told reporters Tuesday that the struggles have drastically demoralized the workforce, created difficult budget uncertainties and eroded military training and readiness to the extent that it will take months to recover.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved the final furlough numbers this week after meeting with top leaders. Officials discussed this situation only if granted anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly.
"I want to thank our civilian workforce for their patience and continued dedication to our mission during these extraordinarily tough times," Hagel said in a letter to top military and defense officials Tuesday. "I regret the difficulties they and their families had to face during this furlough period."
The decision came as about 650,000 civilian workers began their fifth week of furloughs, which have riled department employees and prompted many to complain directly to Hagel during his visits to military bases in recent weeks.
One major change, officials said, is that teachers and support staff in Defense Department schools who were scheduled to begin their furloughs at the end of August will now be completely exempt from the unpaid days off and the school year will begin as normal.
Hagel has been saying that budget people were trying to find savings to shorten the furlough time. But officials also cautioned that the savings are for this year only, and won't affect likely budget cuts in 2014, if Congress doesn't act to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts slated for next year.
The 11 furlough days were expected to save roughly $2 billion.
Officials said the savings 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 around between accounts. They indicated that budget crunchers moved money from lower priority accounts in order to free up money to reduce the furloughs and provide additional resources to other programs that directly affect the military's readiness for combat.
One key area of savings — roughly $1 billion — came from Army officials who were able to delay until next year some costs for bringing equipment home from Afghanistan.
The furloughs were having sweeping effects across the department.
Officials said phones have gone unanswered, finance reports have been delayed, depot repair work is behind schedule, and contract deadlines have been jeopardized.
In Connecticut, for example, several dozen National Guard troops who had been sent to Afghanistan for the past year came home only to be told that they would be forced to take furlough days.
In a letter to Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, a Connecticut lawmaker said that about 100 members of the Guard unit were at the war front providing maintenance for the helicopter fleet, and about a third of them were full-time civilian technicians who were subject to furloughs.
"After serving in a war zone away from family, it was a bitter pill for these patriots to lose 20 percent of their pay almost immediately upon return," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He added that the furloughs have caused long-serving, hard-working civilians to question whether they want to stay in their Defense Department jobs.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, urged Hagel to reimburse the furloughed employees for the six days they have lost.
Facing $37 billion in budget cuts this year, Pentagon leaders initially announced the 11 furlough days, arguing they needed to shift money to other priorities, including combat training, flight hours, and efforts to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan. Since then, budget chiefs have been analyzing the numbers in a persistent effort to find unspent dollars as they neared the end of the fiscal year.
A law enacted two years ago ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deal, but they have been unable to do so. The Pentagon, as a result, is facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade. For the 2014 budget year, that will mean a reduction of up to $54 billion from current spending totals.
About 85 percent of the department's civilians have been subject to furloughs. The bulk of the exempt employees are foreign nationals or workers not paid through appropriated funding. Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence workers are also exempt, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards, where officials worried that the harm to shop maintenance would end up costing more than the salary cuts would save.