WASHINGTON — About 20,000 civilian workers at military bases in Oklahoma received some welcome news on Tuesday, as the Pentagon reduced the number of furlough days civilians must take through September.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the forced days off without pay would be cut from 11 to six. About 650,000 workers have been taking a furlough day each week since last month and are now in their fifth week; the Pentagon announcement means next week will be the last in which furlough days are required in the current fiscal year.
“It's definitely good news,” said James Schmidt, the union representative for workers at Tinker Air Force Base, where about 14,000 civilians have been furloughed.
Schmidt said there were some workers who were relatively unfazed financially by the furloughs and actually enjoyed the extra days off. However, he said, the majority of workers were struggling, and some had taken out loans or cut contributions to their retirement accounts.
“I think the employees are excited at least for this short reprieve,” he said. “I think some are a little shocked that it's not over.''
Hagel said the Pentagon had been able to find some savings and reprogram funding from other accounts to reduce the furlough days for now. But he made no guarantees for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Hagel cautioned that the automatic budget cuts that went into effect on March 1 mean the Pentagon must cut another $52 billion in the next fiscal year.
“Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs,” he said in a memo.
“I want to thank our civilian workers for their patience and dedication during these extraordinarily tough times, and for their continued service and devotion to our department and our country. I know how difficult this has been for all of you and your families.”
In Oklahoma, the largest number of furloughs occurred at Tinker and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant; civilians at Fort Sill, Altus Air Force Base and Vance Air Force Base also were furloughed.
Active-duty military personnel were not furloughed.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said Tuesday that some of the furloughs never made sense, particularly for those Tinker workers who aren't paid out of money appropriated by Congress.
And Cole, whose district includes Tinker and Fort Sill, said it was “hard not to be a little suspicious” about whether the Pentagon could have avoided the furloughs altogether in this fiscal year.
He said there may have been some feeling in the Obama administration that the military furloughs would pressure Republican lawmakers into allocating more money and “giving up the savings” obtained from the budget cuts.
Republicans won't sacrifice the savings, he said, but will work to redistribute the cuts to lessen the impact on the military.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said, “We're pleased the department has finally utilized its authority to reduce furlough days. This is welcome news for our employees and their families in Oklahoma and across the nation. However, if they can reduce them from 11 to six, I would think they could sharpen their pencil a little more and find more ways to cut waste rather than people.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, spoke Tuesday to the Air Force Association in Oklahoma City and said he “heard from Oklahomans who have suffered from being furloughed.