WASHINGTON — Nearly 20,000 civilian workers at Oklahoma military bases are set to be furloughed this week in the first of 11 forced days off that will cut their salaries by 20 percent through September.
“There are people who are going to be devastated by this, people who live right on the line, that live paycheck-to-paycheck,” said James Schmidt, the union representative for about 14,000 civilian workers at Tinker Air Force Base who are subject to the furloughs.
James MacDonald, a production controller at Tinker's maintenance center, said the pay cut could mean he can't make his mortgage payments.
“There's no way that I can make up that income,” MacDonald said, adding that he was already working part-time at two other jobs. “I really, really can't afford it. It's just stressful.”
And MacDonald said he and other workers are worried that more furloughs will be ordered in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
“Not knowing ... You can't plan for anything,” he said.
According to base officials at Tinker, work at the massive aircraft maintenance center will essentially shut down on furlough days, leading to a 20 percent loss in production through September. Top Air Force officials have told Congress that clearing the maintenance backlogs created by the furloughs could take several months.
The U.S. Army's weapons manufacturing plant in McAlester will also have to cease production on furlough days.
The impacts at Altus Air Force Base, Vance Air Force Base, near Enid, and Fort Sill, a U.S. Army post near Lawton, will be much less severe since the primary functions at those installations are performed by uniformed personnel. However, all of the installations will experience reductions in some services.
Bases offer counseling
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in May that most of the military's civilian workers would have to take a furlough day each week beginning next week through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
About 700,000 civilian workers for the department are expected to be furloughed. The furloughs are the result of automatic budget cuts — known as sequestration — that took effect in March. The cuts were part of the 2011 deal between Congress and President Barack Obama to raise the debt ceiling, though it was anticipated then that some deficit-reduction agreement could be reached to head off sequestration; that didn't happen.
Earlier this year, Defense Department officials had considered 22 furlough days for the civilians. According to the department, that would have cut the civilian payroll in Oklahoma by $129 million. The number of furlough days for the rest of this fiscal year is now 11.
The Oklahoma installations have been offering financial counseling and other services to the employees.
“The furlough presents many challenges to our team,” said Col. William Spangenthal, commander of the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force Base.
“However, our primary goal is to ensure our Air Force Mission continues while doing everything we can to ensure our civilian Airmen teammates have the resources available to assist them in this difficult time.”
‘Not a good way to operate'
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Tinker and Fort Sill, said his offices have been receiving calls from affected workers.
“People are very concerned,” Cole said. “They have a right to be. This is not a good way to operate.”
Cole praised the quality of the workforces at the bases and said, “We shouldn't be punishing people like that. We should be rewarding them.”
The military services have been allowed to make some exceptions from the furloughs. Hagel exempted U.S. Navy shipyard workers; ones working in combat zones and others involved in protecting public safety are also exempted.
Top Air Force officials also exempted Tinker employees whose homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the storms on May 20 and May 31; at the time of the announcement, Tinker civilians had lost a total of 372 homes.
The announcement got a mixed response on the U.S. Air Force official website, with some arguing that many of the civilians subjected to furloughs have financial problems.
A writer name Jerry said he was from Moore and his home was damaged but that he would take all 11 days of furloughs.
“It is wrong to single out some for better treatment no matter the reason,” Jerry wrote. “Maybe they should exempt single parents. They need the money as well. Maybe they need to exempt disabled workers. They also need the money. If you start giving some people preferential treatment there is no place to stop.”
Defense Department officials have not determined whether more furlough days will be necessary in the next fiscal year.