WASHINGTON — Civilians working at military installations in Oklahoma could lose a total of $129 million in pay from April through September if automatic spending cuts are triggered in eight days, according to the Defense Department.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta notified Congress and about 800,000 civilian employees Wednesday that furloughs may be necessary if Congress and President Barack Obama can't reach an agreement on replacing the across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration.
The Defense Department's chief financial officer, Robert Hale, told reporters that individual workers will get a notice in mid-March if they are likely to be furloughed. That will start a 30-day clock before they could be furloughed. Hale said it would likely be late April before furloughs begin.
The worst-case scenario, officials said, is that employees would have to be furloughed for 22 days from April through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That would amount to a 20 percent pay cut in that time period.
Uniformed personnel are exempted, but there will be very few exemptions for civilians, department officials said.
Defense Undersecretary Jessica Wright said the effects on civilians would be “catastrophic.”
“These critical members of our workforce, they work in our depots,” Wright said Wednesday.
“They maintain and repair our tanks, our aircrafts, our ships. They teach our kids. They care for our children. They provide medical treatment to all of our beneficiaries. They take care of our wounded warrior. They provide services and programs such as sexual assault prevention and suicide prevention, just to name a few.”
The Air Force has estimated as many as 16,000 civilian workers may have to be furloughed at Oklahoma's three bases, with most coming at Tinker Air Force Base.
The U.S. Army has an estimated 7,700 civilian workers at Fort Sill, an Army artillery training post near Lawton, and at its ammunition plant in McAlester, according to an analysis prepared for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa.
Figures released by the Defense Department on Wednesday show Oklahoma would rank 12th among the states and the District of Columbia, with a potential payroll hit of $129.3 million. The department's civilian payroll in Oklahoma last year was $1.5 billion.
President Barack Obama has called on Congress to replace the cuts with new tax revenue and more targeted cuts, but congressional Republicans have said they won't approve higher taxes.
Effects on agencies
Though cuts to the military have received most of the attention, most federal departments and agencies will be affected and some may also use furloughs to absorb the cuts.
Congress is in recess this week and will have only four days next week to address the cuts before they go into effect. However, Hale said the required notification period will give lawmakers more time to replace the cuts before the furloughs start.
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federal of Government Employees, said the furloughs would be a “tremendous” economic hit.
“An employee in the middle of the pay scale, earning about $50,000 a year, takes home between $500 and $600 a week after subtracting health insurance, retirement and taxes,” Cox said. “Taking away one day's pay every week could mean the difference between covering the mortgage and putting food on the table.”
Wright, Defense undersecretary, said the effect of the furloughs would reverberate beyond the civilians whose pay is cut.
“The first, the second, and the third order of effect on sequestration will be felt in the local commands and will be felt in the local communities all over the United States and, clearly, all over the globe,” she said.
“This is not a Beltway phenomenon. More than 80 percent of our civilians work outside of the D.C. metro area. They live and work in every state of the union.”