When Fort Gordon computer specialist Stan Buckalew began to revise his work schedule Friday after six weeks of civilian furloughs, he couldn’t help but reflect on how the unpaid leave made work more stressful.
Friends who were contractors lost jobs because of budget cuts; family members were forced to work a 40-hour week for 20 percent less pay; and a lack of utility workers on the Army post because of furloughs often resulted in heating and cooling units going unfixed and breaking down repeatedly for two months.
Even a 400-mile convoy training mission to Tennessee was delayed a week for reserves because the Army did not have enough mechanics at its depot repair shops.
“The day-to-day grind of furloughs really gets on your nerves,” Buckalew said of the experience. “It affects everything you do.”
J.C. Mathews, a Fort Gordon spokesman, said the end of the furloughs was welcome news for the post as a whole and its 3,100 civilian workforce, which took most of their furloughs on Fridays. Buckalew agreed, but ever-changing media reports surrounding future funding continue to disrupt the workplace.
“We have important work to do here, and the full-time return of the workforce enables us to accomplish our critical missions on behalf of the armed forces and the nation,” Mathews said in a statement. “We’re also very grateful for the steadfast effort of each member of our civilian workforce. Despite the anxiety and hardships they endured during the furlough, they continued to provide outstanding service to the service members, families, employees and retirees who depend on us for support.”
The uncertainty of how long the furloughs would last and how they would be executed led Buckalew – who maintains, processes and troubleshoots military computer systems at Fort Gordon – to stop watching and reading news reports because of the back-and-forth discussions about furlough implementation.
“It was the not knowing that was the hardest part,” Buckalew said. “There were many different plans and a whole of lot of waiting.”
When sequestration took effect March 1, the Department of Defense faced cuts of more than $30 billion in its budget for day-to-day operating costs and the possibility of forcing civilian employees to take up to 22 days of unpaid leave.
In early January, military leaders began civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary workers and significant cuts in facilities maintenance. They also sharply cut training.
But by early May, senior leaders still faced budgetary shortfalls of $11 billion, prompting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to announce an 11-day furlough.
Hoping to reduce furloughs, Hagel’s staff submitted a reprogramming proposal to Congress in May, asking elected officials to let the DOD move money from acquisition accounts into day-to-day operations.
Congress approved most of this request in late July to reduce the furlough to six days. With fiscal year 2014 two months away, though, the DOD still faces major fiscal challenges, he said.
If Congress does not change the Budget Control Act, Hagel said, his department will be forced to cut an additional $52 billion starting Oct. 1.
U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., last month had an amendment approved for the House’s Defense Appropriations Bill to prohibit furloughs in the next fiscal year.
The bill and the amendment passed the House, said Richard Carbo, Barrow’s press secretary.
“Assuming that the Senate takes up the DOD Appropriations bill when Congress returns from the August district work period, we’re extremely optimistic that our language would be included to prevent any furloughs from taking place after Sept. 30,” Carbo said in an e-mail. “There’s broad, bipartisan consensus that these furloughs are a bad idea, and we can make these spending cuts more responsibly.”
Buckalew said he does not begrudge the idea of furloughs.
“Most employees can handle a 10, even 20, percent pay cut if they know it’s coming, because if you are living within your means that is reasonable – drive fewer miles, eat out fewer days,” he said.
Buckalew said he resented how the cost-saving measure was implemented – politicians using sequestration as a “political maneuver” to force Congress to agree on a budget.
“It is not the most efficient way to save money or the best approach to financial management,” he said.
Buckalew said he prefers an honest and open approach, because every civilian in the federal workplace whether associated with the DOD or not, expects some budget cuts each fiscal year.
“Furloughs make things that might otherwise be difficult more complicated,” he said. “It adds one more moving part to the equation.”