Michigan defense workers relieved by reduction in furlough days

“It’s time to give federal employees a decent pay raise and to put them on their job for 40 hours a week taking care of the American public and defending this country,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said after addressing employees at the base, home of the 127th Wing.

Michigan’s hardest-hit area is Macomb County, where more than 7,000 full-time civilian employees at the U.S. Army’s Detroit Arsenal and Tank Automotive Command — known as TACOM — are required to take one unpaid day off a week. Another 750 employees at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township are also furloughed.

Workers got relief Tuesday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the number of furlough days will be reduced to six from 11 for the remainder of the fiscal year — Sept. 30. The department initially projected 22 days off, but found new savings and got congressional permission to shift money among defense accounts to meet its $37 billion in spending cuts mandated by sequestration.

“I’m glad they’ve ended. I wish we never had them,” said Kevin Ashbeck, 56, of Algonac, a utilities mechanic on the base and federal worker for more than 30 years. “We never had them before, and we should never have them again.”

Still, civilian defense employees Wednesday talked about the hardship the initial 20 percent pay reduction per week has had on their lives — from canceling their cable television service, putting off car repairs, ending dinners out and worrying about house payments.

“As a single mom, it’s really put a strain on my ability to take care of my kid,” said Kathy Smith, 49, from Troy, who works in accounting at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. “You wouldn’t think 20 percent would be that big of a deal, but when you are getting by, it affects your finances.”

Smith, who served in the Air Force before becoming a civilian employee, said she is concerned about falling behind on her bills and getting into financial trouble that might affect her security clearance and ultimately cost her job.

“It causes you great stress,” said Smith, mother of a 14-year-old. “Even though your (furlough) days are coming to an end, you have to worry about the future. ... Your whole family feels it. It’s caused me many sleepless nights. The depression, the anxiety, it’s horrible.”

The furloughs kicked in because Congress failed to act before March 1 to avert about $85 billion this year in automatic spending cuts that trimmed defense operations as well domestic programs including research, unemployment benefits, Head Start and Meals on Wheels programs.

Known formally as the Budget Control Act, the belt tightening measure sets spending levels for 10 years. There’s little optimism Congress — on recess now for the summer — will act to turn off the sequester cuts for the remainder of this year.

But lawmakers are working on appropriations bills for 2014 that would lessen sequestration’s impact. The House already passed a defense bill before recess that would restore some sequestration cuts. The Senate passed its version in committee and is expected to take up the bill after the summer break.

Cox, the union president, said both the House and Senate versions are better than operating without a budget. As he travels the country talking to civilian employees, Cox said he is urging them to call their member of Congress to urge action.

Without changes to current law, Hagel said the Department of Defense would be forced to cut an additional $52 billion starting Oct. 1.

“Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year,” the defense secretary said in his Tuesday announcement, “but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs.”

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130807/POLITICS03/308070106#ixzz2bD9VlK3o

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