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‘Bad timing’ for furloughs

JBLM leaders outline impact of upcoming furloughs on installation service members, civilian employees

Northwest Guardian

Published: 01:02PM June 13th, 2013
‘Bad timing’ for furloughs

Scott Hansen/Northwest Guardian

Col. Jeff Philippart, left, Col. H. Charles Hodges, Jr., middle, and Col. Dallas Homas speak to reporters during a press conference June 10.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord leaders announced the implementation of workplace furloughs mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which will affect about 10,000 civilian Department of Defense employees on the installation.

Senior leaders from across the base held a press conference at JBLM Headquarters Monday to take questions and further explain the impending furloughs of many of the DOD civilians who work on the base. The cuts were mandated under the budget compromise between Congress and the executive branch labeled “Sequestration,” which made general reductions across the government.

Beginning the week of July 8 until Sept. 30, affected DOD civilian employees will see their workweeks shortened to four days, cutting their weekly pay by 20 percent.

Utilization statistics for JBLM services determined Fridays were the lightest demand, least invasive days to enforce the furlough of most DOD civilians on the installation. The commissary will close on Mondays and remain open Fridays. Child development centers will not be affected by the furloughs.

Civilian employees will experience 11 non-sequential unpaid days instead of the 22 unpaid days proposed earlier in the year. Even though the number of furlough days has narrowed, the impact is still significant, said JBLM Commander Col. H. Charles Hodges, Jr.

“The furlough reduces our ability to support service members, those men and women who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice in support of our nation’s national security objectives, including their families and our retirees,” he said. “It also has a huge financial impact on those civilians, who along with our service members, have served and sacrificed for this nation over the last 12 years. It is going to place a significant financial burden on them and their families.”

In the judgment of Madigan Army Medical Center Commander Col. Dallas Homas, news of the furlough is absolutely the worst case scenario.

His organization has already seen two sequestration budget cuts totaling $20 million, and 200 civilian jobs at Madigan have been eliminated in the past year. According to Homas, he loses weekly five to 10 civilian employees who accept positions at other area hospitals, and he is unable to fill hundreds of vacancies in his workforce due to a hiring freeze. Simultaneously, the summer permanent-change-of-station season is forcing civilian employees who are married to service members to voluntarily vacate their positions. Homas said the furlough will impact 70 percent of Madigan’s 3,300 civilian employees.

“Those employees who remain are currently working double time to cover those gaps,” Homas said. “This is just really bad timing.”

Homas is also concerned about access to care diminishing for Madigan’s patient population of 120,000 service members, families and retirees. The hospital will inevitably experience a reduction in services, causing the pharmacy, family medicine clinics and surgery suites to be closed one day per week, based on workload and need. The emergency room will remain open 24 hours a day with a reduced staff.

When physicians are unavailable at Madigan, there is the potential for patients to be seen off-base by civilian contracted health care providers in the community, and the hospital will pay the cost of those services whether the bill is higher or lower, Homas said.

“There is absolutely nothing we can do to keep our patients and staff from being impacted,” he said. “But we will not allow the cuts to ever compromise the safety of the care we currently provide our beneficiaries.”

JBLM Air Force leaders fear furloughs will affect military readiness, since real-world missions are launched daily from McChord Field, 62nd Airlift Wing Vice Wing Commander Col. Jeff Philippart said. Eleven McChord Field employees have already lost their jobs due to sequestration, and furlough notices went to 270 62nd AW employees.

“(Furloughs) will have an immediate impact on our operations at McChord Field,” Philippart said. “Our readiness will almost certainly decline over time.”

JBLM senior leaders worry about the morale of the civilian workforce that they say has supported service members through 12 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These are the same people that have borne the emotional duress that goes along with being a nation at war for this long. Now we’re saying ‘Here’s your 20 percent pay cut’ at the end of it all,” Homas said. “How do they handle that?”