Unpaid leave for US department civilians

2013-05-15 12:00
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel. (File, AFP)

US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel. (File, AFP)

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Washington - Most of the Defence Department's 800 000 civilian employees will be placed on unpaid leave for 11 days as the US military scrambles to comply with budget-cutting targets by the end of September, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Tuesday.

Hagel, acknowledging the deep unpopularity of his decision, said he decided to move ahead with civilian furloughs only after every other option to meet the congressionally mandated cuts had been exhausted, short of jeopardising national security.

The furloughs will begin on 8 July, with roughly one day of unpaid leave per week for more than 600 000 affected defence department employees.

"Difficult choice. But we had to make it," Hagel told an audience of Pentagon employees.

"And I tried everything, we did everything we could, not to get to this day this way."

The furlough period is shorter than the earlier estimates of 14 days issued in March and 22 days in February. But many civilians had hoped Hagel would find other ways to cut the budget or allow individual branches of the military to shield the civilian employees.

Cuts likely to deepen

Hagel said less than one fifth of civilians paid with appropriated funds would be exempted. Those include employees stationed in combat zones and medical personnel.

Employees in Navy shipyards are also being exempted because of fear their absence would delay maintenance of nuclear ships, according to an attachment to a memo by Hagel to Pentagon leaders released to reporters.

"No one service, no one's going to be protected more than anybody else," Hagel said.

Defence spending has taken the single biggest hit from automatic US spending cuts, known in Washington as the "sequester". Hagel said the Pentagon was currently $30bn short in accounts used to pay most civilian employees for this fiscal year, which ends on 30 September.

The cuts - which were included in a 2011 law aimed at reducing the federal government's wide deficits - will deepen in the coming years unless Congress acts to reverse them.

Indeed, Hagel offered faint hope to Pentagon employees that the situation will be any better during the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 October.

Military readiness in jeopardy

"I can't guarantee you that we're not going to be in some kind of a similar situation next year," Hagel said.

US military leaders have warned Congress that the cuts will erode military readiness to respond in the future to global tensions including the civil war in Syria and Iran's nuclear advances at the same time that the United States winds down the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Hagel noted steps the Pentagon has already taken, saying in his memo that the Air Force is reducing flying and the Navy and Marine Corps are cutting back on training and deployments, including a decision to reduce the presence of aircraft carriers in the Gulf.

"Even after taking all these actions, we are still short of needed operating funds," Hagel said in his memo.

Last month, Hagel said in a major policy speech that he had ordered a review that could still lead to additional belt-tightening measures such as reducing the number of generals, paring back the civilian workforce and moving to stem spiralling costs of new weapons.

The Pentagon is also urging Congress to move forward with a new round of military base closures. Closing domestic military bases is deeply unpopular with lawmakers due to the damage such cutbacks can cause to local economies.

Read more on:    chuck hagel  |  barack obama  |  us  |  us shutdown  |  us economy
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