As sequestration nears, Panetta gets real, announces furloughs

After months of painting doomsday scenarios about what would happen if sequestration hits the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made it all the more real today in announcing that the Pentagon would be forced to furlough as many as 800,000 DOD civilians starting this spring.

In so doing, Panetta formally notified Congress that he expects to have to put civilians on unpaid leave, which will save the Pentagon about $5 billion and cut individual civilian pay by as much as 20 percent.
The department must notify Congress 45 days before it is to furlough employees, so if sequestration hits, furloughs wouldn’t happen until at least April.  

Although significant, the furloughs are not as dramatic as some reports suggest. According to the Pentagon’s plan, the majority of the 800,000 civilians would be told they had to take one day off per week for 22 weeks, between April and September, when the fiscal year ends. And each military service has until early March to ask for specific exemptions on behalf of employees deemed critical.

In a note to the civilian workforce, Panetta, who left this morning for Europe, explained that the uniformed military are exempted by presidential authority, but the Pentagon’s flexibility when it comes to civilian workers is more limited. '[W]e have no legal authority to exempt civilian personnel funding from reductions,” Panetta said in the message to the workforce. “As a result, should sequestration occur and continue for a substantial period, DoD will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian workforce on administrative furlough.”

Each employee would be given 30 days’ prior notice to being furloughed.

The Pentagon has been warning of such measures for months. But with the requirement to notify Congress 45 days prior to furloughing employees and the March 1 sequestration deadline just days away, Panetta took action.

Panetta, who will remain defense secretary until at least next week, when he is expected to be succeeded by Chuck Hagel, vowed to continue to work with Congress to avoid sequestration, a manufactured budget trimming measure. Sequestration will cut $470 billion from the Pentagon budget over 10-years in addition to the $487 billion in defense spending cuts to which the Pentagon has already agreed.

DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released